About 10 million people visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City every year, and yet among the questions I am asked most frequently is, “Why do you care so much about the Kotel?”
I, for one, maintain this fixation in good company. MK Avigdor Liberman (Israel Beytenu) has prioritized the Western Wall as part of his conditions to enter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
According to media reports, Liberman related to the Western Wall compromise agreement by saying, “The compromise is not demonstrably in opposition to Torah and Jewish law. The government voted in favor, including the PM and ministers [Naftali] Bennett and [Ayelet] Shaked. Annulling the Kotel agreement presents a severe threat to Israel-Diaspora relations.”
Liberman, far from a liberal spokesperson, shares with Women of the Wall a key foundational understanding about the Western Wall’s impactful position, especially within Israeli-Diaspora discourse. Liberman’s stubbornness on the matter is revealing. The MK, who represents a right-wing party, appreciates the significance of this holy site and its magnetic energy to attract both conflict and connection. But how do I respond to the incessant question, “But why are you so hung up on the Kotel?” in my own words? The answer, surprisingly, is in the swimming pool.
In my youth, I was a swimming champion in Israel. One of the lessons I learned in swimming is that in order to achieve maximum speed, one must stroke efficiently from beneath the center of gravity, which demands much more effort, but yields real results. The Western Wall is the center of gravity of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious life in Israel. In parallel, it is also the emotional center of gravity of the Jewish People. This tension between the political and the personal excludes a large segment of Israelis and visitors from experiencing a visit to the Western Wall in a positive way.
The state transferred the keys to the holiest Jewish site to an extremist minority faction. Forceful and authoritarian, its conduct and management leads to the alienation of many in society from connecting with the Wall.
I meet many Jewish women and men who feel prevented from visiting the Western Wall since they feel it is not “home,” but rather a place where the ultra-Orthodox rabbis determine the rules and enforce them through harshness and brutality. The majority of Israeli society opposes these coercive forces, but is not empowered to stand their ground and go out to battle. Many justify this passivity toward the conflict through their sense of helplessness: This is just a fight with no real chance; the Kotel is haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and that is that. The price of this despair, however, is the loss of pluralism and equality. Resignation comes at too precious a cost.
As Netanyahu forms his coalition, WOW maintains the importance of a constructive solution to the Western Wall conflicts, and demands a demonstrable commitment to the State of Israel’s founding values. If it falls short of this initiative, the government of Israel will be effectively exposing its dissolved dedication to recognizing a widening Jewish tent, and in particular, the inclusion of Diaspora Jewry.
We, Women of the Wall, have not forsaken this “home base,” this site of gravitational pull.
The Kotel holds within it the deep foundation of religious-political dynamics, and therefore must be a central component of any vision for advancing religious pluralism, for the sake of the soul of Israel.
The writer is board chairperson of WOW and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. She held a seat on the Jerusalem City Council for 14 years.