Few American tourists to Israel forget their first visit to the Western Wall. They put notes in the cracks, whisper prayers and take photos against the backdrop of Judaism’s holiest site.
But Kobi Bachar of Tel Aviv can’t remember the last time he visited.
“I was there maybe 10 years ago,” said Bachar, who is secular. “It doesn’t interest me.”
For years, American Jewish organizations have railed against the haredi Orthodox restrictions placed on religious expression at the Western Wall that prohibit egalitarian prayer and bar women from singing out loud and donning religious articles.
In response to the criticism, which has amplified in recent months in the wake of several highly publicized confrontations between Israeli police and female activists at the wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to review the wall’s policies and recommend changes.
But among the Israeli secular majority, such restrictions rank near the bottom of a long list of church-state issues they would like to address.
The prohibitions are “something we need to be done with, but there are other issues that affect larger sectors of society,” said Alon-Lee Green, an activist with the far-left Hadash political party. Green said he was more passionate about other issues of women’s rights in Israel, as well as with Israel’s prohibition of civil marriage.
Haredi rabbis dominate Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and thus control not only the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, but also civil matters such as marriage, divorce and burial. For most Israelis, religious rules governing these aspects of their lives are far more intrusive and onerous than limitations on prayer at a site they never visit.
“Many people feel there are so many battles to be fought, they just gave up on the Kotel,” said Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes a monthly women’s service at the wall. Sachs and other worshipers at the service are frequently detained by police for disobeying the Kotel’s prohibitions.