Who May Pray Here? Judaic Intolerance in a Public Space

Professor Jacobs’ presentation can be seen here: http://goo.gl/oH2sGu.

At the Spectacle of Toleration conference last fall, two challenging presentations addressed the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa). One of these, Anver M. Emon’s “Shari‘a and the Rule of Law,” will be discussed in another post. Here, I will talk about Steven Jacobs’ “Women at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem: A Case Study in Judaic Intolerance in a Public Space—Solutions and Resolutions.”

Jacobs, Chair of Judaic Studies and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, showed us that even—maybe especially—what is meant by sacred is contested. Jerusalem’s Western Wall is sacred to Jews around the world, but “its prayer-spaces,” Jacobs tells us, “are controlled by (male) Orthodox Jews, supported by the government apparatus of the State of Israel, who have erected a gender-segregated barrier dividing men and women who wish to pray there.” Two historic photographs give us glimpses of Israel as it is—fractious and extreme to the point of absurdity—and Israel as it might have been. One, the iconic photograph of Matilda Goldfinger being rounded up by the SS and Wehrmacht after the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) Israeli newspaper Ba-Kehillah (“In the Community”) with her face “blurred beyond recognition” lest it arouse sexual desire among “its male readership.” Jacobs juxtaposed this with a 19th century image showing men and women praying side-by-side at the Wall with no mechitzah (barrier) between them.

How did Israel get from one to the other? Jacobs notes that, Israel’s “first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) and his cadre of secularist leadership were willing to grant the Orthodox community dominance over the laws of what is called in Hebrew ishut (i.e., personal status: birth, conversion, marriage, and death), fully believing that…[the] surviving remnant of traditional European fundamentalist Jewish religiosity…would eventually disappear.” They miscalculated. While just after Israel captured the Old City in the Six-Day War (June, 1967), Jews from around the world gathered at the Wall to pray, men and women, side by side, a month later, the Orthodox-controlled Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that barriers would be erected to prevent that from ever happening again.

Mere separation was not enough, however. On December 1, 1988, seventy attendees of the First International Conference for the Empowerment of Jewish Women held in Jerusalem, comprising members of all Judaism’s various streams, including secularists, went to the women’s section of the Wall, to pray aloud and read from the sacred Torah scroll. It was the First Day of Rosh Hodesh, a ritual-festival day traditionally associated with women. Their worship service was met with by curses and threats from Orthodox men and some Orthodox women on the other side of the mechitzah (barrier). “Since then,” Jacobs says, “every Rosh Hodesh, Israeli Jewish women…have gathered to celebrate their Judaism religiously despite verbal harassments…, chairs thrown, rocks, and even bags of urine and garbage….” The Israeli courts have, to put it mildly, not been helpful.

On November 16, 2012, Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the IsraelReligiousActionCenter, went to the Kotel to pray with 250 Jewish women from Hadassah, the world’s largest Jewish women’s organization. She was arrested, interrogated, strip-searched, and forced to spend the night in jail.  Hoffman, a leftist member of the Jerusalem Municipal City Government and advocate for women’s and minority rights, “had,” Jacobs observes, “found her moment. As she herself stated…, ‘I have a unique ability to get pissed off!’” In less than two years, over 125 articles following her activities and those of Women of the Wall have been published in the Jewish press as well as The New York Times, The New Republic, Reuters, and the Associated Press, and many thousands of comments—vehemently pro and virulently con—have appeared on line. In one article, Dafna Berman reported that “Hoffman’s persistence on behalf of WOW has not gone unnoticed by Israeli politicians,” who belatedly recognized the damage its policy was doing to Israel’s standing with American Jews.

One of these was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who “tasked Jewish Agency Chairperson Natan Sharansky (b. 1949), former Soviet prisoner-of-conscience, human rights activist, author, and popular hero to many Jews world-wide, with coming up with a solution.”  Sharansky’s Plan envisaged a substantial expansion of the women’s section that would require “a significant infusion of funds on the part of the Israeli government…and would take several years to realize.” At present, the future of the plan remains in doubt; it is unclear that either side, particularly the fundamentalist Orthodox community, would be mollified by its terms.

Indeed, since last fall, the situation has deteriorated. The Government had intended to transfer control over Robinson’s Arch, near the Wall, where egalitarian/non-orthodox worship has long taken place, to the Orthodox/Haredi City of David Foundation, which would have resulted in disenfranchising not only Women of the Wall but non-Orthodox Jews as well. Protests by Reform and Conservative rabbis has led to a temporary delay, but meanwhile one of the Jewish newspapers has reported discrimination by some of the Orthodox against women worshippers inside the tunnel reserved for women.

It is hard to see how a sustainable agreement can be reached with groups who cannot be placated by any concessions whatsoever and whose support Netanyahu’s fragile coalition needs to stay in power. In an online piece entitled “A Tipping Point—Rosh Chodesh Sivan and WOW, Mark S. Anshan, Past Chair of ARZENU—the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Zionists—wrote that “the issue of prayer at the Western Wall…serves as the metaphor for the larger issue of religious pluralism in Israel—a Jewish society in which all forms of Jewish religious practice and custom should be recognized and respected.” Jacobs adds “that the issue of women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem is also an expanded metaphor for (1) ultimately, which form of Jewish religious tradition will prevail in Israel: male-dominated authoritative Orthodoxy or male-female egalitarianism as manifested in the various non-Orthodoxies, and/or (2)  how Israel will continue to define itself in both the present and the future as both ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic,’ and whether or not these two value-laden and value-oriented expressions of the human condition are incompatible or harmonious. For the past sixty-five years (1948-2013), the largely secular State of Israel has allowed…Orthodox Judaism to have its way.”

In its Declaration of Independence, Israel announced itself as a nation of respect and equality for all religious traditions and interpretations. In the absence of a written Constitution, however, figuring out what that meant in practice has been left to the courts, with the predictable haphazard and incoherent results. Jacobs argues, “the present imbroglio as it manifests itself in this issue of Women at the Wall simply cannot continue if [Israel’s] Jewish people are to live together in their Jewish religious diversity…. [O]ther related issues surrounding gender equality and religious pluralism go beyond these specifics. For example, one of the ongoing controversies ever since Israel’s founding has been who decides whether or not one is or is not a Jew?… [E]ach of the different streams of religious Judaism has its own standards and approaches and not all agree with the other. Thus, to concede the standard of identity to the Orthodox only…continues to strain relationships not only within Israel but in the United States and elsewhere as well.”

Jacobs predicts that “the question of women’s religious equality may yet prove to be the tip of the…iceberg.” The Israeli state’s continued inability to take on the Orthodox religious establishment will, Jacobs tells us, lead to more numerous “and uglier confrontations between opposition groups who will redefine themselves in starker and starker and even more strident ways and thus lessening opportunities for compromise.” There is scant ground for hope, at least in the short- term.

For what may begin to change the game in the longer term, however, Jacobs looks to the recent law rescinding the military exceptions and exemptions of full time Orthodox male seminary and yeshiva students and requiring them to opt for either military or alternative service. Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of Orthodox within the general population subject to service has triggered howls of protest in Israel and the United States. But, as Brian Leiter might say, the legislation is attempting to correct the sort of “burden-shifting” disguised as religious freedom that is socially and politically corrosive. Nor is it toleration: it’s privilege and, in Israel, a privilege not extended to others on account of their faith.

Whether these sheltered  and, in real-world terms, uneducated youths are or can be prepared to enter the workforce is, like so much else in this story, yet to be determined. Nevertheless, Jacobs says, somewhat wistfully, I think, in “this small ‘c’ confrontation maybe the law of unintended consequences, should the government of Israel ultimately prove successful, [will] result in a lessening of the power of the chiefs rabbinate…and the so-called ‘Orthodox establishment’ as well. Only time will tell.”


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About the Author
Ken Yellis coined the term Toleration Studies. He is Principal of Project Development Services, based in Newport, RI. He has been deeply involved in The Spectacle of Toleration project and helped plan the Conference held in Newport and Providence in Fall 2013.

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