After 10 years, I thought I’d seen everything

For nearly 10 years now, I have come to the public square at the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh (new moon) to stand there, at a distance, and strengthen the Women of the Wall.

July 18, 2019 22:21
3 minute read.
MK Rafi Peretz at a ceremony at the education ministry

MK Rafi Peretz at a ceremony at the education ministry. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I thought I had seen everything, but what happened to me at the Western Wall this time was nothing I had ever experienced. For nearly 10 years now, I have come to the public square at the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh (new moon) to stand there, at a distance, and strengthen the Women of the Wall. I’m used to the curses and the profanities, to having my tallit (prayer shawl) pulled, to the taunts of “Stinker! Good-for-nothing! Dog! Dung heap! Go back to America!” I have become thick-skinned. I just stand there and take it, including the occasional spitting, usually without reacting.

This time I was shocked.

An usher wearing a yellow vest, who was working for the contractor hired by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, or maybe the notably absent police, created a barrier between me and the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) and Nationalist ultra-Orthodox (Hardali) boys around me as they shouted curses and profanities and tugged on my tallit. One young man pushed the usher, and he firmly responded “Move boy!” He had a heavy accent. They realized he was Russian. They decided to call him Boris, and now he became an object of their invective as well. “Stinking Russian. Why did you come to protect him? Get out of here, Boris. Go back to Russia. Are you even a Jew? You and Liberman are both goyim [gentiles]. Right, Boris, you vote for Liberman, don’t you? Look at him, the Russian comes to defend the dog!”

I was so overwhelmingly ashamed.

I looked at him and said, “You don’t have to stay, it’s all right. I can take care of myself,” but he did not leave. After a few minutes he whispered to me: “I’m a father with two children. They would never ever speak this way to an adult. What kind of education did these people get?”

IT WAS interesting that he spoke about education, this admirable security guard who, in all the turmoil, I did not thank – or even ask his name. Why interesting? Because only later did I find out that on that very morning, only a few meters away from where we stood, Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz had been praying in the men’s section. He had come to participate in the protest against the Women of the Wall, a demonstration disguised as an ordinary morning prayer service. It is organized every Rosh Hodesh at the Wall by Matti Dan, the chairman of Ateret Cohanim, an ultra-right-wing organization and yeshiva located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Peretz also made a speech. In photos of the service, which the rabbi’s spokespersons distributed proudly, he looked tall and handsome, wrapped in tefillin, a prayer tallit over his head, gazing heavenward in supplication and awe.

Heaven help us: what a sham.

Later on, Peretz claimed that he was “unaware of the nature of the gathering.” He didn’t know. I wonder which is worse: that he knew and came anyway, which makes him nothing more than a common provocateur, or that he did not know and is simply a marionette in the hands of Dan and MK Bezalel Smotrich. Either way, this was not the only anti-educational event that took place that morning at the Western Wall.

When the service ended, a group of about 20 Hardali youths went along with their rabbi to the other part of the Western Wall – to the egalitarian or family area known as Ezrat Yisrael. The platform was crowded, as it is every Rosh Hodesh, with families celebrating their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. This “holy troop” came to disrupt the celebration. They moved through the crowd dancing and singing raucously, around and between the families. “Worship God with joy,” they shouted. Why? Just because. Because they could. Because they wanted to. Because the Kotel, the Western Wall, on both sides is registered in their name in the Land Registry Office.

Mr. Prime Minister, you are responsible for this disgrace: for the insults heaped on the usher in the yellow vest; the distress and choked tears of the bar mitzvah’s mother; the girl who could not complete her Torah reading because the noise was deafening and she burst into tears. You could have prevented this with the compromise that your government adopted two years ago by a majority vote. Instead you reneged because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox and the Hardali parties. True, the Western Wall has seen worse horrors than this. But this time they are happening on your watch.

The writer is the executive director of the Masorti Movement.

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