Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
You are asking for trouble when you put power in the hands of religious functionaries who are accountable only to their own zealous religious constituents. Because these functionaries are not beholden to regular folk who are used to the freedoms afforded them in a free, open society, they have a maddening tendency – as individuals convinced their way is the only way – to impose their own extreme religious restrictions on others, without thinking about the consequences.
This phenomenon was on display last week at the Western Wall. Women journalists covering US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit there were segregated and forced to stand behind men, and behind a barrier. As a result, these female journalists’ coverage of the event was impaired, particularly the video shot from behind barriers and rows of male reporters.
The Western Wall area has essentially become the fiefdom of the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbinic establishment.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, who represents the Haredi rabbinic authority, makes sure all activities that take place directly in front of the Kotel are conducted according to the strictures of the most zealous streams of Orthodoxy.
It just so happens that the incident last week during Pence’s visit received a great deal of media coverage. A number of prominent female reporters conducted a successful social media campaign under the hashtag #Pence- Fence, which received international media attention.
But this is not the first time the Haredi management of the Western Wall has enforced its strictures on women who are just trying to do their job. Female journalists complained in May, when US President Donald Trump and his family visited the Kotel. Then too, all women reporters were separated from their male counterparts by a barrier and set further back from the president. As a result, they were less able to cover Trump’s visit.
Gender segregation can potentially hurt both men and women, and both sexes have an interest in fighting for a more pragmatic solution. Unfortunately, few male journalists spoke out against the gender segregation that was imposed.
The religious functionaries at the Kotel could have made more of an effort to help female journalists cover Pence’s visit. But they made it clear that they had no intention of doing so. At first, an additional obstruction of a canopy that further blocked the women’s view was imposed. Only after a fuss was made was the canopy removed. Women were later given chairs to stand on so as to improve their view.
When the entire Western Wall Plaza was closed to worshipers and only Pence and his entourage were given access to the Kotel, there was little religious justification for such separation. Male worshipers engaged in prayer need to be prevented from being distracted by females.
But during an official political visit it hardly seems necessary to enforce such strict gender separation. Even at synagogue events such as circumcisions, gender segregation is usually not enforced.
The intransigence of the Haredi rabbinic leadership is nothing new. And female journalists are not the only ones forced to pay the price. Last year, under pressure from Shas and United Torah Judaism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on a government decision dating back to January 31, 2016, according to which a gender- egalitarian prayer space would be created at the Kotel.
The present government coalition is both dependent on Haredi support and sympathetic to Haredi demands. Liberal forms of Judaism, in contrast, have a relatively small local political base. In the past, Netanyahu and other Israeli political leaders have attempted to accommodate the demands of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism out of an understanding that good relations with American Jewry, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, is both strategically important and central to Zionism, which views Israel as a home for all Jews – Orthodox or not.
However, it seems Netanyahu has moved away from this approach. Instead, he displays the interests of a politician who wishes to maintain a stable government coalition. It is understandable, but in the meantime, Israel’s liberalism has been compromised.
The unnecessary segregation of women journalists at the Kotel is one issue that can have a quick and just solution: Take away the barrier.