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.
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
,” as they put it, using the haredi pronunciation for the Hebrew word
,” “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
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
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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
The significance of that offer hasn’t been fully appreciated –
neither by WOW’s supporters nor its detractors.
For the first time, the
government 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.
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 its 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
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 securalists and haredim – or men and women. In that moment of awe,
the calculations of religious bureaucrats were superfluous.
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
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
Meanwhile, give Sharansky a chance. And stop the monthly
desecration at the Wall.Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow of the iEngage
Project (iengage.org.il) of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He
is author of the forthcoming book,
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli
Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to be published in
October by Harper- Collins.
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