Women Who Libel Israel

It is plain silly to deny the manifest truth that Israel's state-religion is Orthodox Judaism, and visiting its holy places means respecting its rules of conduct. Women of the Wall are participating in a cynical charade designed to portray Israel as a benighted and misogynous backwater.

David Landau
David Landau
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David Landau
David Landau

Every time Anat Hoffman performs her stunts at the Western Wall, well-meaning liberals like Bradley Burston fall for it.

As a liberal myself (I hope), and as a longtime admirer of Bradley (and in many ways of Anat), I always ask myself, Why? Why participate in a cynical charade designed to portray Israel as a benighted and misogynous backwater?

"Try to imagine this," Bradley begins in his latest fulmination in the wake of Anat's latest provocation. "Try to imagine this in an account of a foreign regime: A Jewish person wearing a prayer shawl is heard publicly chanting the Sh'ma, the core statement of Judaism. The regime's state-funded clerics and its judiciary have ruled that such worship "hurts the feelings" of other people in the area, thus constituting a disturbance of the peace. Police arrest and manhandle the worshipper…"

Well, try to imagine this, Bradley. Try to imagine a Protestant Christian cleric, wearing robes that define his denomination, standing in St Peter's Square, Rome, and leading a group of Protestant Christian coreligionists in a brief prayer service.

It would be brief, because they'd all be carted off by the Swiss Guard quickly enough, for "disturbing the peace".

Now – closer to home for the Hadassah women whose attention Anat was trying to catch – imagine our Protestant doing the same in the forecourt of St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

Or, even closer, imagine the Satmar Rebbe and a group of his followers marching into New York's Temple Emanu-El and conducting their prayers there. What would your vaunted American Jewish pluralism make of that?

AHA! I hear you say. But this is the WALL we're talking about, the site holy to ALL Jews. Not some single-denominational place of worship. Anat Hoffman and her Women of the Wall want equal, respectful treatment at the Wall.

"It happened at the holiest site of all of Judaism," Bradley explains. "The Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Temple, which the Talmud teaches was destroyed by sinat hinam, the baseless hatred of Jews for other Jews."

Fair enough, let's shift the analogy to the site holiest on earth to ALL Christians, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Now, try to imagine this, Bradley. Imagine a few Copts straying across one flagstone demarcated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the praying territory of the Ethiopians. Imagine a few Armenians encroaching onto one minute of the prayer-time demarcated by ancient accords for the Greek Orthodox. Wars were launched for less.

As for Protestants (the bulk of U.S. Christians), they have no locus standi (in the most literal sense) at all in the ancient Church. They venerate the Garden Tomb, elsewhere in the city. Imagine, Bradley, an American Protestant cleric or layman insisting on conducting a public prayer service (as distinct from private, silent prayer) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The police would have to intervene fast to rescue him or her from the "disturbance of the peace" that would most inexorably ensue.

Where would your sympathies be, by the way, Bradley? Or yours, Anat?

By the same token – and this is really another rhetorical question – where are your sympathies in the matter of Jews, in tallitot like Anat, insisting on declaiming their Sh'ma Yisrael on the Temple Mount, which after all is even holier to Jews than the Western Wall Plaza below?

I know where they are; they're with mine. All three of us liberals see that behavior as wantonly provocative, almost calculated to incite a "disturbance of the peace" in the most literal sense of that phrase, a disturbance that could set the whole Middle East ablaze.

Perhaps the best analogy to the Wall is London’s Westminster Abbey, the foremost national shrine that is also the foremost place of worship of a state that has a state-religion, Church of England Protestantism.

The Catholics, long persecuted in the past, have their own Westminster Cathedral nearby. The Jews, long discriminated against, too, have their synagogues. The Muslims their mosques, and so on.

There is pluralism and freedom of religion in Britain. Everyone can visit every house of worship, respectfully. But they cannot – even if they are devout and pious Christians – conduct any Christian divine service in Westminster Abbey other than the service of the state-religion: Church of England. To do so would entail being arrested and manhandled, as Anat was and hoped and intended to be, when she conducted an act of Jewish worship at the Western Wall that diverged from the rite of the state-religion of Israel: Orthodox Judaism.

Non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere may understandably balk and bridle at the assertion that Orthodox Judaism is Israel’s state-religion. But it is plain silly for Bradley Burston to deny what is a manifest truth, and to moan and mourn at the blithe indifference of the Israeli press and public to Anat Hoffman's antics.

The State of Israel, a product of European political culture, has a state-religion. American Jews – and Israelis playing to their gallery like Anat – need to understand and accept that, just as Europeans – and Israelis – understand that their constitutional conventions are deeply different from America’s political culture. Just as the Women of the Wall would accept and respect the rules in Westminster Abbey, and surely not sympathize with Methodists or Mormons trying to muscle in and hold a service there.

Israel's formative political culture is not necessarily immutable. As Golda Meir, that American-educated yet benighted and misogynous Israeli head of government (America has yet to elect one), never tired of explaining and repeating: If non-Orthodox American Jews want to influence the issue of synagogue-and-state in Israel, they need to live here in sizable numbers and vote here.

Decades later, that remains demographic, democratic, common-sense.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall organization, holds on to a Torah scroll as Israeli police attempt to take it from her and detain her, outside the Western Wall in 2010.Credit: AP



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