Many secular men and women believe that the battle over the Western Wall has nothing to do with them. Simply put, the dispute between those who insist on praying next to a wall doesn’t interest them. They don't care that hooligans regularly abuse women there whose only “sin” is that they came to pray. Nor does it interest them that the government is repeatedly avoiding the implementation of the compromise plan that was agreed on.
But the battle over the right of all the denominations of Judaism, men and women together or separately, to pray as they wish at the site that is sacred to all Jewish men and women, is an integral part of the battle over democratic-liberal values in Israel. It’s a battle over the status of women, against the Orthodox monopoly over Judaism, against the status quo that is irrelevant to the 21st century, and in favor of pluralism and freedom of religion and worship for all.
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These are values that every secular-liberal Jew should want to promote. Not necessarily for the sake of the women in prayer shawls, but for our own sake. Because the fact that secular Jews are ignoring the battle for intra-religious pluralism strengthens the conservative-extremist monopoly that affects their lives too. On another plane, in recent years this battle has even been shaping Israel’s relations with American Jewry, and in so doing it also affects our diplomatic relations with our most important ally.
President Isaac Herzog is well aware of all that. Not only from his tenure as chairman of the Jewish Agency – he has dealt with it throughout his political career. That’s why it was so disappointing to see his response at the end of last week, when he asked Reform lawmaker Gilad Kariv and Conservative lawmaker Alon Tal to stay away from the Western Wall “in order to prevent brawling and unnecessary baseless hatred among elected officials in front of the remains of our Temple,” as he put it.
This story is not particularly complex; from a liberal point of view it is clearly a matter of good and evil: Women who are fighting for their right to pray at the Western Wall (yes, with a prayer shawl and a Torah scroll, heaven forbid), and on the other hand hooligans who want to prevent them, physically, from doing so. The president, who realized that Orthodox lawmakers, including Arye Dery and Bezalel Smotrich, intend to arrive at the site accompanied by supporters, decided to ask the victims, of all people, to refrain from going there.
Deri’s bureau claims that all he did was to call on “everyone to whom the sanctity of the Western Wall is important to come and pray at the Western Wall together with him.” But because the president spoke as though he had prevented nothing less than a civil war, let’s think together: Who exactly was expected to be violent? Women in prayer shawls or demonstrators who were called on to preserve “the sanctity of the Western Wall”?
In the end, the drama was not prevented in any case. The women arrived to demonstrate, as usual, against the discrimination, and the opponents of freedom of worship behaved with their usual wildness. The only thing that was prevented was having the Reform and Conservative lawmakers stand alongside the women.
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The bottom line after all the nice words, Jewish unity and all that nonsense? “Israel’s president bought quiet at the Western Wall at the price of giving in to a gang of benighted hooligans who are convinced that they, and only they, represent Judaism,” tweeted journalist and TV presenter Oren Nahari, and he was absolutely right. Herzog gave in to the hooligans instead of expressing a clear position in favor of freedom of worship and the status of women at the Western Wall. In doing so he thinks he behaved in a statesmanlike way and is preserving “unity.” He isn’t. He is preserving only the flawed status quo. “Unity” isn’t everything, when there’s a clear answer to the moral question.
Kariv, for his part, believes that by acceding to the president’s request, “We brought back the plan for discussion by the government, and caused Israel’s president to become involved.” He is referring to Herzog’s directive that the director general of the President’s Residence will soon begin “discussions with all those involved.” But if Herzog continues to give in to hooliganism and religious coercion – we don’t have much reason to rely on these discussions.