Showdown at Western Wall Pits Liberal Labor Party Against Ultra-Religious Noam Party
Women of the Wall’s first post-election new month religious service showcases societal chasms in Israel
The showdown between ultra-Orthodox nationalist and liberal Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem ended with the first Reform rabbi to serve as an Israeli lawmaker, Gilad Kariv, walking around the site clutching a small Torah scroll, trailed by a swarm of policemen, religious opponents, television cameras and some supporters. This effectively put an end to Plan A, which would have seen the rabbi surreptitiously transferring the Torah to a member of Women of the Wall to be read in the women’s section, where the religious object is forbidden. Instead, Kariv settled at a spot in the middle of the wall, known as the Kotel, just in front the men’s and women’s sections, and from there read from the Torah with a group of women.
As the sun rose on Tuesday morning, the atmosphere was already tense in what would be a High Noon-style showdown, though it was at 7 a.m. instead of noon, and in Jerusalem at the holiest site for Jews rather than a train station in the center of a small town in New Mexico.
The weapons of choice in the showdown were a Torah scroll and women’s voices, versus whistles and an amped-up volume from the microphone of the prayer leader in the men’s section Looking deeper, it is clear that the showdown is part of the battle for Israel’s democracy, taking place on the day before Israel’s Independence Day.
Instead of top cop Will Kane and outlaw Frank Miller, the dueling parties consist of the two sides of Israel’s religious spectrum. On one side is Israel’s ultra-religious and nationalist right-wing Noam party, part of the equally extremist Religious Zionism party, which won six seats in last month’s national elections. The newly created Religious Zionism union also includes the National Union and Jewish Home parties.
On the other side, are members and supporters of the pluralist, feminist Women of the Wall organization in partnership with Labor’s Kariv.
Women of the Wall advocates for women to be able to sing, read from Torah, and wear phylacteries and kippot during worship services, which is vastly different from ultra-Orthodox customs. All of this is banned by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate which oversees Israel’s religious sites, as well as most life-cycle events. This arrangement with the rabbinate dates back to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who offered the religious community governance over such rites in order to get the support he needed to form a government coalition.
Which side represents the good guys and which side represents the bad guys depends on who you ask.
Around half of the Israeli public supports Women of the Wall, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, and some 35% to 40% of Israelis are unhappy with the rabbinate’s role in the state.
Women of the Wall gather at the Kotel for worship services each Rosh Hodesh, the start of the Jewish month, and are met with resistance from the ultra-religious community. Schoolgirls from across the country are bused to the site in Jerusalem to enter the women’s section and shout and blow on whistles in order to drown out the sound of the women singing during their services. Some opponents even resort to physical violence, with pushing and shoving commonplace as the women also are verbally harassed during their services.
The actions of the opponents of Women of the wall during Tuesday’s showdown were no different.
However, what was different about this Rosh Hodesh was the appearance of two lawmakers, from opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum. With the showdown falling so close to Independence Day, those siding with Women of the Wall said that the issue of prayer at the Western Wall was a reminder of just how far Israel still had to go in order for women to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as men. For those ideologically opposed to Women of the Wall, the issue represents a threat to their vision of the Jewish state.
Noam lawmaker Avi Maoz led a service for Rosh Hodesh on Tuesday morning from the men’s section of the Western Wall. “What happened today at the Western Wall, with the provocations, we will work to ensure that the next government does not repeat itself. A good and blessed month for the whole house of Israel,” Maoz said in a statement translated from Hebrew that he shared with The Media Line.
Maoz also said in a statement: “We add kindness and love against hatred and incitement. We add prayer and faith against the new provocations and inventions.”
Watching the morning’s showdown from the Western Wall plaza just outside the men’s section, Faigy, a Haredi woman who would only give her first name, told The Media Line: “I am glad Maoz is standing up to them. What they are doing is a disgrace. This isn’t Judaism.”
Kariv, who was elected last month to the Knesset from the Labor party, which won seven seats, strongly disagrees with the charge that the women are not practicing Judaism, calling such a view “zealotry.” A long-time supporter of Women of the Wall, he wasted no time as a new lawmaker to smuggle in a Torah scroll for the women to read in their section of the Western Wall plaza. Torah scrolls are forbidden in the women’s section, and members of the Israeli legislature are not subject to a search before visiting the wall.
“We need to say in a very clear way that is a shonda [shame] that we need to use the parliamentary immunity of an MK in order to hand a Torah to women who want to read from it … This is a moment that emphasizes how unacceptable the current situation is,” he told The Media Line. “I am proud I have the opportunity to support Women of the Wall, but I’m ashamed by the fact that we need this political tool in order to enable something that should be seen as the most legitimate act in the Jewish state.”
Kariv says he hopes that Tuesday’s showdown will bring the issue of the Western Wall back into the Israeli spotlight. He added that the battle over women’s prayer at the Western Wall is “part of a much bigger effort to promote freedom of religion and gender equality.” There is a direct link between what happens at the Western Wall and what happens in other public arenas in Israel with regard to gender equality, he explains.
Maoz, through his spokesperson, declined to comment further.
Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, says that Kariv’s election is crucial for the plight of religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel.
“It’s like having a Woman of the Wall in the Knesset,” Hoffman told The Media Line, referring to Kariv. “He’s been a member of Knesset one week and this is the first thing that he is doing.”