'War' With Ultra-Orthodox Over Western Wall? Bring It On

Shocking Attacks at Kotel Galvanize Jews Around Pluralism

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By Eric Yoffie

Published May 20, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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My first reaction to the ugly confrontation at the Western Wall on Friday was to be appalled and sickened. Attacks carried out mostly by ultra-Orthodox men, who heckled, shouted, and threw things at approximately 100 members of Women of the Wall attempting to pray at Judaism’s most sacred site, were a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

But on reflection, I’ve changed my mind: I welcome the war that the ultra-Orthodox have chosen to launch. As offensive as these actions were, there are multiple reasons to expect that good might emerge from the nastiness of recent days.

First, the 6,000 Haredi girls sent to participate in the demonstration have received an education that is sure to open their eyes to new Jewish possibilities. As Anat Hoffman astutely noted, the spectacle of masses of Haredim screaming their contempt at a small number of tallit-wearing but otherwise traditionally-clad women will move some of these girls to wonder what exactly is the terrible sin these women have committed.

In the past, their elders have sent young boys to the barricades but have usually sheltered young girls; they know that even in the Haredi world, women are not immune to the winds of feminism and change. Therefore, if this is a new Haredi tactic, I am for it.

Second, attacks on Women of the Wall continue to energize American Jews. The story of the recent outrages was the lead in every American Jewish publication, and was also given prominence in the mainstream media.

It may be true that Israelis care little about the Wall, but American Jews care more every day. And no matter how many explanations are offered by Israeli diplomats, Jews in America are horrified at what they see.

Even in the face of civil war in Syria and looming threats from Iran and Hezbollah, American Jewish interest in the Kotel has not waned. The longer the war at the Wall continues, the more American Jewish commitment to religious freedom in Israel grows.

Third, the ongoing conflict means that champions of religious freedom, in both Israel and America, have refused to be bought off.

When a major religious crisis arises in Israel, particularly one involving American Jews, the script is generally as follows: The government offers a “compromise,” everyone applauds, a process is instituted to implement the plan, and interest in the issue, particularly in America, dissipates. Then problems arise, the compromise collapses (sometimes after dragging on for years), nothing is accomplished, and the whole cycle begins again.

The best example is the conversion issue; there have been a dozen conversion crises involving Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and innumerable attempts to resolve them, the most famous being the 1997 Neeman Conversion proposal. But conversion remains as much of a problem now as it has always been; the Neeman proposal resolved little, except around the edges.

And what all this means is that Women of the Wall and their American supporters are right to continue their fight until a satisfactory resolution is actually in place.

Fourth, the demonstrations were carefully orchestrated; if rocks were thrown, imprecations shouted, and women spit upon, Haredi leaders gave the green light for such behavior.

Respectful demonstrations would have been appropriate, but this is not what happened. In other words, what Haredi demonstrators did at the Wall reminds us of the willingness of figures in the Haredi community to resort to thuggery—and of the need for the Jewish world, the forces of Torah, and the government of Israel to stand firm against thugs.

And finally, the war at the Wall encourages us because it is a sign that there is a real chance for religious change in Israel.

Haredi leaders are rattled by what is happening at the Kotel, and even more rattled by the likelihood that their young men will be drafted and allocations to their institutions slashed. As these developments become more likely, a desperate reaction was to be expected — and the violence at the Wall is only the first round.

What this means is that the Women of the Wall are wise to keep up the pressure. And it is to be hoped that Israel’s political leaders, fortified by the January elections and the expectations of an impatient Diaspora, will retain their resolve as well.

None of this means that there cannot be a reasonable solution to current problems at the Kotel. In fact, there already is.

The April 24 decision of the Jerusalem District Court provides for women to pray wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah in the women’s section at the Wall. If the Government of Israel will fully support and enforce this decision — and will also back the Sharansky proposal, which provides a space for egalitarian prayer at the Wall — the Women of the Wall will be satisfied, Diaspora Jews will be exhilarated, and the forces of religious coercion will be defeated.

Until then, the Women of the Wall are right to stand firm. If that means a war at the Wall, so be it.

Eric Yoffie is former leader of the Union of Reform Judaism


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