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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Provocation at the Wall

In this month's Commentary Magazine, Evelyn Gordon has a lengthy piece on the 'Women of the Wall.'
In an interview with Haaretz shortly before finishing his term as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren said he had been devoting considerable effort to convincing Israeli leaders that the battle over the attempt by a women’s group to hold prayer services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall “could have strategic implications.” In Israel, Oren explained, the controversy over Women of the Wall “is perceived as a marginal question,” but “Americans see it as an issue of human rights and women’s status and freedom of worship.”
This divergence of views between Jews of the diaspora and Jews in Israel has a simple explanation. Americans see the struggle of Women of the Wall as a crucial battle for human rights and women’s status because they believe both are under threat in Israel. Israelis see the struggle as a marginal issue because they believe neither is under threat. The story of how that perceptual gulf has developed, and how a 25-year-old organization exploited it to catapult itself from relative obscurity to worldwide fame, is indeed a story with “strategic implications.” It’s the story of how Israelis opposed to their countrymen’s choices at the ballot box have sought to generate outside pressure to overturn those choices by creating a false narrative of an Israeli slide into fundamentalism and fascism.
[S]ince most Americans weren’t familiar with the details of the [Supreme] court’s [2003] ruling [seemingly barring WOW from the main prayer area], it was easy for WOW to obscure the police’s legal justification and claim that the force was simply kowtowing to Haredi demands, especially given the Haredim’s vocal (and physical) opposition to WOW’s services. That in turn played straight into the “exclusion of women” narrative—a connection WOW made explicitly. As its director, Leslie Sachs, said after one incident, “Today police succumbed to Haredi bullying and put us at the back of the bus again.” Thus, to Americans, it looked like official Israel, in the form of its police force, was colluding with a fundamentalist demand to remove women from the public square.
The organization also enjoyed one serendipitous piece of luck: In April 2013, the Jerusalem District Court asserted that police had misinterpreted the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, and that it hadn’t actually barred WOW from praying at the main section of the Wall. This was a claim WOW had never even made; its own website interprets the Supreme Court ruling the same way the police did: as saying that its right to pray at the Wall “was not without boundaries,” and therefore, it should hold its services at Robinson’s Arch. But since the state opted not to appeal the district court’s interpretation, it became binding, and thereafter, police did try to protect WOW’s monthly services.
Nevertheless, WOW also had no qualms about engaging in provocations to keep the pot boiling. The tactic is familiar to its longtime chairwoman, veteran activist Anat Hoffman. She is now executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s Israeli legal and advocacy organization. She also spent 14 years as a Jerusalem city councilwoman for the left-wing Meretz Party and has served on the boards of two prominent leftist organizations, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Women’s Network. But she has been involved in less mainstream activity as well: In 1988, for instance, she co-founded Women in Black, an organization whose protests against “the occupation” and against Israeli efforts to suppress Palestinian terror were considered radical at that time—at the height of the first intifada, years before the PLO recognized Israel.

[R]elocating away from the Haredi worshipers would defeat Hoffman’s main goal, as she herself defined it to the Jerusalem Post last December: “I want to see and be seen.” In short, her interest is not in holding women’s services at the Wall per se, but in doing so where they will be clearly visible to others who find them objectionable.
Indeed, WOW’s anti-Haredi agenda was clearly visible this past July, when Haredim finally managed a peaceful counter-demonstration. On the day of WOW’s planned monthly service, as many as 7,000 Haredi high-school girls arose at the crack of dawn to reach the Wall first.
According to police, they completely filled the women’s section, leaving no room for WOW to pray near the Wall as usual—which was obviously the point. The organization and its supporters were furious. “We feel like we’ve been betrayed by the police today because where we’ve been made to pray today is not a place of prayer,” Sachs said. “It is a blatant violation of the district court ruling,” charged Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform Movement, who, backed by Israeli Conservative Movement leader Yitzhar Hess, argued that the government must ensure that WOW can pray at the Wall when it so pleases.
What neither WOW nor its supporters explained is this: What were the police supposed to have done with the young Haredi worshipers? Banned them from the Wall? Kicked them out when WOW arrived? The implication was clear. WOW’s demand for open access to the Wall applies only to itself; Haredi women are free to come en masse only when WOW doesn’t want the site.
WOW’s provocative behavior alienated even some Israelis who in principle have no problem with women’s prayer groups. Hillel Halkin, for instance, wrote an article in the Forward in June terming the organization “childish provocateurs” indulging in the “narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”
[G]enerating diplomatic pressure on Israel starts with undermining Americans’ belief in Israel’s commitment to democratic values. Indeed, Shavit linked the two issues explicitly in his July interview with Oren quoted at the beginning of this article: “The Israel of the settlements, exclusion of women from the public sphere, and keeping the Women of the Wall away from the Western Wall isn’t distancing itself from the American left? We’re not making ourselves unpopular with the new and progressive America, including liberal Jews?”
During the years when Israel was negotiating with the Palestinians and ceding territory unilaterally, the left-wing media had no need for Women of the Wall, and consequently had no interest in it. But for the past few years, not only were there no negotiations or withdrawals, there wasn’t even any public pressure for them: Most Israelis attributed the lack of negotiations to Palestinian intransigence and thought unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank would simply create another Gaza-style rocket base.
Consequently, for the left, it became imperative to ratchet up international pressure by making Israel “unpopular with the new and progressive America, including liberal Jews.” In this campaign, Women of the Wall proved useful, hence its sudden rise to media stardom. And in that sense, WOW is indeed a symptom of a broader Israeli problem. But this problem isn’t the “exclusion of women.” Rather, it’s the left’s inability to reconcile itself to the Israeli electorate’s rejection of their chosen policies.
 Read the whole thing.

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At 10:17 PM, Blogger Red Tulips said...

Here is the bottom line. There is no Halachic prohibition for women to engage in women's only prayer services at the kotel, including holding Torah scrolls and wearing prayer shawls. Given that, it is absurd and offensive to ban them from their right to pray. And to pretend that the Haredim who protest Women of the Wall are peaceful is frankly laughable.


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