With the worst (one hopes) of the recent spate of stabbings in Israel in the rearview mirror, it’s time to reap the benefits of hindsight.
One benefit, as disturbing as it is undeniable, is the realization that violence lies just beneath the surface of at least a portion of Palestinian society. All that’s needed for it to erupt into murderousness are angry teens, some elders to egg them on — and a real or imagined stimulus.
There are different theories of what triggered the most recent spasm of bloodshed. But one pretext repeatedly offered by Palestinian and other Arab leaders, and by the assailants themselves, was that they felt Israel was planning to change the status quo at the Temple Mount. The 1967 agreement is that the site would be under Muslim religious control and that Jews and Christians can visit the site but not pray there.
That may seem an unfair restriction of Jewish and Christian religious rights; it is. But despite that, and the fact that the site was Judaism’s holiest many hundreds of years before Muhammad was born, Israel wisely instituted its “hands-off” policy in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, in order to keep the peace. And, generally, that modus vivendi has worked.
However, even though the most respected Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have forbidden Jews to ascend the Mount, both for reasons of Jewish law and not to provide excuses for Palestinian violence, some nationalist Jews have defied them and, predictably, drawn Muslim ire.
What those nationalists don’t realize, or refuse to accept, is that giving up one’s rights, pride aside, is sometimes the right thing to do.
As it happens, even some of us who readily recognize the wrongness of the nationalists’ provocations (intended or not) need to learn the same lesson.
Like another group of provocateurs active just below the Temple Mount, at the Kotel, or Western Wall.
Women of the Wall has agitated for years to conduct nontraditional public prayer services at the site, although such services, with women chanting loudly and wearing traditionally male religious garb, offend many of the Jewish women and men who make up the vast majority of regular Jewish worshippers at the site.
The activists insist that it is their right to pray as they wish, where they wish. That’s an eminently arguable contention, but there’s no need to refute it. Even from the activists’ own perspective, there remains the uncomfortable truth that having a right doesn’t mean asserting it is necessarily right.
Jews who wish the Women of the Wall would confine their nontraditional services to their own houses of worship are generally not prone to violence. Much has been made of some hotheads who, indefensibly, throw things at the feminist worshippers. But such impulsive zealots are distant outliers. The vast majority of religious Jews who frequent the Kotel suffer what they perceive as an indignity in silence and in pain.
That pain doesn’t seem to concern the Women of the Wall, but it should. Because asserting one’s rights — or what one perceives to be one’s rights — at the expense of upsetting others is wrong. Not only because it courts retaliation, as in the case of the Temple Mount mounters, but also because, well, it’s wrong. Inherently, morally, Jewishly. No one wants to prevent the Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel. All that the Kotel regulars want is respect for the time-honored religious standard at the site.
No harm has been borne by anyone through maintenance of the nearly 50-year-old modus vivendi at the Wall — namely that anyone who wishes to worship there, no matter his or her beliefs, is welcome to do so, but with the understanding that public services held there will be traditional Jewish ones. No one will be denied the right to worship, and no one will be offended.
The Women of the Wall have, repeatedly and with media in tow, smuggled a Torah scroll into the Kotel plaza on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month, and the group has trumpeted the ratcheting-up of its campaign.
Laudably, though, before this last Rosh Chodesh, the group announced that it would not do so, out of “a deep sense of responsibility… so as not to challenge the security forces during this time of high threat levels.”
How wonderful it would be if — out of a sense of responsibility to keeping peace among Jews — the group were to reassess altogether its insistence on how it asserts what it feels are its rights.
Avi Shafran is the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America.