Liberal Jews Gather to Liberate the Western Wall for Women

A new battle for the liberation of Jerusalem is brewing in the Jewish world. While most American Jews scurry about, recovering from High Holidays and preparing for Thanksgiving, liberal Jewish leaders from across the globe gathered together to demand the right to pray and read Torah at the Kotel according to their own custom without Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) interference. In January of this year the Israeli Knesset agreed to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the holy site, an agreement that was essentially shelved only days later and remains there, despite pressure from the Israeli Supreme Court.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, attended the demonstration held this past week at the Kotel. For the first time, male and female leaders from the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as Women of the Wall, carried seven Torah scrolls into the women’s section of the Kotel and read them together. Kariv commented:

“The Western Wall won’t be the same Wall after today,” Kariv told Haaretz. “For the first time, women and men, Reform and Conservative Jews, secular and Orthodox, demand their right to enter the Western Wall. Today we liberated the Western Wall from the control of ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t decide for the rest of the Jewish people how to pray … We won’t acquiesce any longer to discrimination, to incitement, or to the Israeli government’s shameful surrender to a small and aggressive minority.”

Not for the first time, Haredi protestors physically attacked both the egalitarian Jewish demonstrators and their Torah scrolls. Along with verbal and physical harassment, the ultra-Orthodox protestors grabbed at the scrolls and stomped on Jewish prayer books. In doing this the ultra-Orthodox have made it clear in violent terms that this argument is not over observance, Torah, or even God, but a fight to retain their authority over Jewish religious life.

Further evidence comes from the fact that a good portion of this fight has occurred behind closed doors among Israel’s political power players. Prime Minister Netanyahu advocated to keep the battle private, urging the Reform and Conservative movements, along with organizations like Women of the Wall, to essentially keep their mouths shut:

“We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it. The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution.”

“The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” the prime minister said, referring to two UNESCO resolutions that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

After 10 months of waiting, non-Orthodox groups aren’t buying the plea for privacy, as well they shouldn’t. Masked in the notion of focusing on endless international battles, Netanyahu’s plea is yet another thinly veiled bone thrown to his ultra-Orthodox supporters who are, arguably, keeping his political coalition intact.

Natan Sharansky, Jewish Agency chairman and initiator of the Kotel deal, cautioned against Netanyahu’s call for silence from a Diaspora population known for supporting the Jewish State on the world stage:

“We are saying to our people ‘give us time, be quiet’ – but while we are patient, time is running out,” he cautioned.

Sharansky said that while Jews around the world are fighting day and night against the delegitimization of Israel, they find that they are themselves delegitimized “by some people in this house.”

Reframing the battle in terms of political delegitimization set off a firestorm of commentary warning Netanyahu not to sacrifice international support for the sake of national power. Non-Orthodox Jews who support Israel are active in religious streams that support egalitarian observance. With criticism of Israel on the rise among American Jews, why give the largest Jewish population outside the Zionist State yet another reason to disengage?

When David Ben-Gurion granted the Orthodox authority over Israeli religious life, he did so for the sake of the State. Now, nearly 70 years later, it will be interesting to see if Netanyahu is willing to stand up to the power-hungry ultra-Orthodox for the sake, not only of the State, but of the continuity of the Jewish people around the globe.