July 19, 2024
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Time to End the Disgrace at the Wall

The most recent confrontation at the Western Wall between hundreds of members and supporters of Women of the Wall on the one hand, and haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews on the other, was a hillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, and of the good name of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Both sides have a share in that disgrace.

Those haredi young men who jeered and threw garbage at women in prayer shawls behaved like pogromists. The silence within the haredi community added to the disgrace. Yes, the violence was committed by a minority, but the silence of the majority has become a pattern and an enabler of the violence.

The group of haredi women who had organized a counter-prayer against the Women of the Wall can hardly claim innocence either. Though they call themselves Women for the Wall, they too bear responsibility for its desecration. And it makes no difference that the haredi women didn’t call their gathering a counter-prayer, but a prayer for “achdus,” as they put it, using the haredi pronounciation for the Hebrew word “achdut,” unity. They encouraged the atmosphere of hysteria within the haredi community, of the need to rally and “defend” the Wall.

The appeal to “democracy” – to the right of the majority – issued by one of the leaders of the haredi women’s group was especially galling. Perhaps she’s right in claiming that, if there were a referendum regarding prayer at the Wall, a majority of Israelis would vote for the status quo. But the spokespeople of a community that routinely imposes its will on a reluctant majority should be careful about invoking majority will. One measure of democracy is its ability to balance between majority and minority rights in a nation’s public space. The Wall, one of the most resonant public spaces in Israel, should exemplify that principle.

Yet the Women of the Wall (WOW) can no longer claim innocence either. The timing of its latest massive show of force – which drew hundreds of people, one of its largest gatherings ever – couldn’t have been more inappropriate.

That’s because a credible solution finally exists for accommodating non-Orthodox forms of prayer at the Wall. Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky recently presented a plan, backed by the government, which would create a dignified, ample space along the Wall for egalitarian prayer.

The significance of that offer hasn’t been fully appreciated – neither by WOW’s supporters nor detractors. For the first time, the government of Israel has committed to building and subsidizing an egalitarian “synagogue” – and at the most religiously charged Jewish site in the State of Israel. This is an historic victory for religious pluralism.

The Sharansky plan is also a victory for Zionism. At its core, Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood. The genius of classical Zionism was its ability to include almost every variety of Jewish ideology – from Marxist to capitalist, from anti-clericalist to theocratic – under a shared, basic commitment. As modernity fragmented the Jews into rival camps, Zionism insisted that those identities were mere adjectives, and that the unifying noun was “Jew.”

To be true to itself, the state that was founded by Zionism must accommodate all parts of the Jewish people. And that is precisely what Sharansky is offering.

Yet instead of celebrating its extraordinary victory, WOW and some of its supporters have reacted to the Sharansky plan the way one does to a dentist’s appointment, as an unavoidable imposition. Worse, WOW has taken the ill-timed decision of the Jerusalem District Court supporting their right to pray at the Wall as a mandate to press on as if there were no Sharansky plan.

The exclusion of any form but Orthodox prayer from the main area of the Wall is an Israeli tragedy. The Wall should have been designated as an open place of diverse Jewish prayer immediately after its liberation in June, 1967. The secular government of Israel should have insisted that all Jewish groups have access – through time sharing if necessary – to the space we have come to regard as “the Wall.” The first mass pilgrimage to the Wall in 1967, which occurred on the holiday of Shavuot, mere days after the end of the war, was a spontaneous outpouring of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, without any separation between bareheaded secularists and haredim – or men and women. In that moment of awe, the calculations of religious bureaucrats were superfluous.

But the decades since have created a haredi lock on the plaza before the Wall – a status quo which has taken on a powerful life of its own. Any attempt to reverse that reality, even backed by a court decision, will lead to further ugliness and violence – an ongoing hillul Hashem.

The solution, then, is to build another plaza along the Wall, expand our sense of sacred space. The Sharansky plan represents the first serious attempt since June 1967 to sanctify the Wall with Jewish inclusiveness.

American Jews have played a crucial role in helping us get to this point. For more than two decades, WOW appeared every month at the Wall and few noticed, but when the Conservative and Reform movements began to actively champion the group, the Israeli government was forced to take notice. When the Sharansky plan was presented, the egalitarian denominations played a second crucial role – in convincing WOW to accept the compromise.

That is a textbook case of positive Diaspora involvement in influencing the character of Israel, in an area of crucial concern for many American Jews. The leaders of the egalitarian denominations knew when to protest and when to compromise.

Now American supporters of WOW need to send the group another message: Suspend the prayer protests. American Jews should send a parallel message to the Israeli government: If you don’t come through with your promise to create a meaningful space for egalitarian prayer at the Wall, the prayer protests will be resumed – this time, outside the Prime Minister’s office.

Meanwhile, give Sharansky a chance. And stop the monthly desecration at the Wall.

Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

By YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI Reprinted with permission from the Shalom Hartman Institute

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