Yair Lapid, do the right thing for the Western Wall - opinion

Why is my country shaming me for my Jewish practice? Is my desire to be an equal Jew a “finger in someone’s eye?”

 A WOMAN holds up a Torah scroll as members of Women of the Wall and the Conservative and Reform movements chant and pray on Rosh Hodesh Adar II at the Kotel, in March.   (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A WOMAN holds up a Torah scroll as members of Women of the Wall and the Conservative and Reform movements chant and pray on Rosh Hodesh Adar II at the Kotel, in March.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Yair Lapid will soon have the power to show the world that Israel is indeed a democracy and a home for all Jews. We at Women of the Wall implore him to do so. Five years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition announced the shelving of the Kotel agreement, passed by his government the prior year.

In a harsh blow to pluralistic Jewish movements, we were told to wait for the “right” government at the “right” time. Until then, there would be no refurbishment of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall and it would continue to function like a second-class Kotel.

“Don’t you think it’s sticking a finger in their eye? Why be so provocative?” a government representative asked me at a recent Knesset meeting where I demanded a visible entrance to the egalitarian plaza. Why is my country shaming me for my Jewish practice? Is my desire to be an equal Jew a “finger in someone’s eye?”

“Why don’t you use the egalitarian plaza today? Why do you insist on praying at the women’s section?” others ask. As the egalitarian section exists today, there are barriers to accessibility, and the platform does not allow one to even touch the stones of the Wall. Most importantly, both the Netanyahu and the Bennett coalitions have failed to implement the leadership component of the Kotel agreement, which would allow liberal Jewish streams to manage the egalitarian section.

This situation exists because a small but vocal minority of Israelis strongly opposes the agreement and has intimidated politicians into inaction. The lack of advancement demonstrates a dangerous path for Israel – one that gives radicalism free rein and further encourages extremists in their agenda.

 WOMEN OF THE WALL participants and protesters, some holding Word Zionist Organization flags, confront each other at the Kotel earlier this month.  (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL) WOMEN OF THE WALL participants and protesters, some holding Word Zionist Organization flags, confront each other at the Kotel earlier this month. (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)

The danger of equal prayer

To understand the situation since the Kotel agreement was frozen, let’s consider some numbers. In the past five years, the violence that we face at the Kotel has spiked dramatically. For example, last Rosh Hodesh Tamuz, 39 prayer books were destroyed as about 30 policemen and 40 Kotel security guards simply stood watching. Of the dozen-plus perpetrators, and the four police reports filed, still not one has been charged with destruction of property. 

Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, had hot coffee thrown at her. One of our supporters was assaulted and bloodied just outside the gates of the Kotel. Such attacks have prompted us to file more than 100 police reports in the past year. Additionally, every month children are bused in from all over Jerusalem to protest against us and prevent us from praying. On Rosh Hodesh Adar II, an estimated 15,000 children blocked off the Kotel plaza almost entirely. 

Some abuse against Women of the Wall cannot be quantified. It is impossible to count how many times I’ve been called a slut, a whore and a Nazi by children and adults alike who vehemently oppose any expression of our shared religion that deviates from their rules. I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve been kicked, shoved and screamed at. 

And there is no way to measure how much spit has landed on me. This is in addition to the demeaning body searches to which my peers and I are subjected each month. The increased violence waged against our community is frightening. 

In the past five years, we have smuggled in a Torah scroll – which we are legally allowed to read from, per a 2013 Supreme Court decision – 21 times. This number should be zero. We should never have been cornered into the position of smuggling the Torah after the Kotel agreement passed. And yet, the past two coalitions of our Jewish democratic government have forced us to “break the law” by bringing a Jewish holy item into a Jewish holy space. 

The power to change the status quo 

One need not look far to find more examples of emboldened radicalism in our country’s current political climate, and those who oppose egalitarianism and pluralism are becoming increasingly militant. These dangerous views are further legitimized when Knesset members, like MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, join the protests against us at the Kotel.

The Western Wall, and Israel as a whole, must be a place where all Jews feel at home. This will never be the case as long as our elected leaders continuously capitulate to a minority of Jews who refuse to respect the diversity of Jewish practice. 

The Kotel agreement was a compromise that took three-plus years to reach, and all sides made concessions. It has overwhelming support among Israelis and World Jewry. Let us not forget that the ultra-Orthodox officials at the time agreed to the plan. Implementing the Kotel agreement is the only way to mitigate the escalating violence at the Kotel.

If we allow a minority of extremists to bully our lawmakers into canceling plans that have been agreed upon by all sides, are we truly a democracy? Moreover, how bad does it have to get before real change is made? The violence is getting worse, the death threats more frequent. 

We expected the Bennett coalition to implement the Kotel agreement, but as a result of its inaction, we have suffered escalating violence. Enough is enough. As the future of the Israeli government hangs in the balance, no one knows what the next coalition will look like. Six years after the Kotel agreement was passed, and five years after it was shelved, the people of Israel and Jews around the world deserve a leader who will finally execute the plan.

As a nation we must embrace Jewish pluralism, tolerance and gender equality. If the next government neglects this issue further, the most extreme factions in Israel will be empowered yet again to ignore the rule of law, inevitably leading to more violence against innocents. The State of Israel has a responsibility to implement the Kotel agreement before more blood is shed at our holiest side. Now is the time for Yair Lapid to step up and do the right thing. It is the only way forward.

The writer is director of Women of the Wall.