President Trump will be charting new territory in Israel as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall. But he might cause a tremor if he brings his wife, Melania Trump, and his daughter Ivanka Trump along to the holy site.
Melania and Ivanka Trump, along with the latter’s Jewish husband, Jared Kushner, are scheduled to travel to Israel with Trump for his first diplomatic trip abroad. Already, speculation abounds regarding whether Trump’s family will join him at the site and in what configuration. The question is especially sensitive as regards his daughter, who is Jewish.
According to the site’s regulations, the Western Wall is segregated by gender into a large men’s section and a smaller women’s one. It’s possible that Trump will go alone to the site, or that his wife and daughter will split off into the women’s section. But there’s a third possibility that is causing a stir ahead of Trump’s trip.
Jake Turx, senior White House correspondent for Orthodox Ami Magazine (he’s the Jewish reporter that Trump barked at during an early press conference in February) claimed on Twitter that “Israeli sources” told him that the president intends to bring his wife and daughter into the men’s section.
To clarify: Israeli sources claim POTUS, FLOTUS & Ivanka plan to visit men side of Kotel, a very sensitive issue for many Orthodox Israelis. https://t.co/1iDfr98u5S— Jake Turx (@JakeTurx) May 16, 2017
Meanwhile, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman Valerie O’Brien told the Forward that if Trump’s family visits the site “my understanding is they would go to the men’s section and women’s section.”
Western Wall head rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch declined to comment ahead of Trump’s trip through a spokesperson, who said that the rabbi would speak only after the visit.
Religion and state expert Yedidia Stern said that it would be “totally out of order” and even impossible for the family to stand together in one spot, given the regulations at the site. But if such a visit occurred, it would be a strong — if perhaps inadvertent — statement that “[gender] separation is unacceptable” there.
Anat Hoffman, head of the prayer group Women of the Wall, viewed things differently, saying that such a visit would insult feminists who have been fighting for equal prayer rights between men and women at the spot to little avail.
A Trump family visit at the wall would “broadcast to the world a moment of equality that doesn’t exist ever,” Hoffman said.
The possibility of Ivanka Trump in particular praying at the separated men’s section of the Western Wall is a concern among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
The popular Haredi website “bechadrei charedim” reported that ultra-Orthodox activists expressed their hope that “this spectacle does not take place” because it might “influence the conciseness of millions of Jews who will see that, God forbid, one can change the customs of the place and the boundaries of modesty.”
The website reported that Haredi officials are concerned that Trump will arrive at the Wall with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka Trump and “create the impression” that joint prayer is a possible. The report referred to Kushner’s wife as “Trump’s converted daughter.”
Avi Shafran, public relations director of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, said he disagreed that Orthodox Jews would be outraged by a Trump family visit in the men’s section.
“I don’t think most Orthodox Jews would have any negative reaction to such a sanctioned visit. It certainly does not touch upon the issue of whether organized non-traditional prayer services should undermine the longstanding status quo at the site,” he said in an email.
He also said it was entirely possible for the Trump family to be allowed into the men’s section if the rabbi that oversees the site deemed it allowable.
“I don’t imagine it would be a violation of Kotel protocol to have a political leader and his family briefly pay their respects at the Wall on either side of the mechitza [the partition which separates the men and women’s section],” he said in an email to the Forward.
Former U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro told the Forward that it would be “very, very unusual” for Trump to be permitted to pray in the men’s section with his wife and daughter.
“I can’t imagine such an arrangement being permitted for any other visitor so I don’t know that it has even been agreed to,” he said. “If it has it seems to me a truly exceptional arrangement and pushed for very hard by the American side.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.