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'Why I cannot stand with Women of the Wall'

Nothing in Israel, or in the Middle East, is disconnected from anything else. Yet the issue of women’s religious access to the Kotel is treated, especially in North America, as if it exists in a vacuum.

By Aryeh Cohen

Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. March 12, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The story of Women of the Wall begins with the Wall. The story of the contemporary Wall begins with the Six-Day War in June of 1967. It begins not on June 7, when the Old City was captured and David Rubinger took his iconic photograph of three battle-weary Israeli soldiers standing in front of the Wall, nor even when the paratroopers’ brigade commander, Mordechai (Motta) Gur, announced over the wireless: “Har Habayit beyadeinu” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

The story begins a few days later, on June 10 and 11, when Defense Minister Moshe Dayan commanded the demolition of the Palestinian neighborhood, the Mughrabi Quarter, which stood where the Kotel plaza stands today. More than 100 buildings, including three mosques, were destroyed, and hundreds of people lost their homes. The war was already over. Razing the neighborhood was not for military purposes, but, rather, to increase the size of the plaza so that thousands of Israelis could come to the Wall to pray during the upcoming Shavuot holiday. No plaque marks the Mughrabi Quarter site and no alternative housing was offered to the Palestinians who had lived there.

The Mughrabi Quarter, Wailing Wall and Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, 1934-1939 (American Colony Photo Dept.)

This is the beginning of the story of the modern Kotel, out of which grows the story of the women of Women of the Wall, who demand equal ritual access to it. The silences in that historic story prevent me from praying at the Wall and from supporting the women who want to wear tallit and tefillin when they pray there.

Since 1967, the Wall has become a symbol of Israeli nationalism. The discourse around the Wall reflects a discourse about antiquities in Israel, in which archaeology becomes another battlefield for both sides. The Wall is not only a site of sacred reflection; it has also become proof of national roots. In a recent survey, 43 percent of the Israeli public supported the rebuilding of the Third Temple. This number includes 30 percent of secular Jews, whose likely reasons for wanting to rebuild the Temple are not religious. Rather, their reasons have to do with ownership and sovereignty; the leaders of the Temple Mount faithful movement use language that advocates widespread Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and, ultimately, the rebuilding of the Temple itself.

Claiming that the Kotel is the most sacred site of the Jewish people, WoW has adopted the language of “liberating the Wall” from the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate while ignoring both the dispossession of the Palestinians from the Mughrabi neighborhood and the Palestinian connection to the sacred sites on the Temple Mount. In doing so, WoW has become an unwitting ally of some strange bedfellows — those in the movement to rebuild the Temple. WoW recently posted a piece (written by Rabbi Elli Fischer, an activist in the movement to reclaim the Temple Mount) on their website that advocated for equal access for everybody (Jews and Muslims) to pray on the Temple Mount and equal access for everybody (male and female Jews) to pray at the Kotel.

In some other world in which peace and justice reign, and nobody harbors any agendas aside from bettering the good of all, everybody would be able to pray together, or as they wished, at the Western Wall or on the Temple Mount itself. That, however, is not the world we live in. Nothing in Israel, or in the Middle East, is disconnected from anything else. Yet the issue of women’s religious access to the Kotel is treated, especially in North America, as if it exists in a vacuum — separate from the dispossession of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah (just minutes from the Kotel), or the occupation more generally, or the final status of Israel and Palestine, or the future of a Judaism that concentrates on the supporting wall of a destroyed Temple, or the dreams of rebuilding a Temple and reinstituting sacrifices — rather than being something connected to the real lives and sufferings of Israelis and Palestinians and real questions of peace and justice.

In this present situation, I cannot stand with or behind Women of the Wall. I am fearful of strengthening the nationalistic narratives that result from an unexamined attachment to the Wall, and of the damage to Judaism from the privileging of this place and this property above the concern for justice and peace. And I am not convinced that a victory in this fight would do anything substantial to lessen the grip of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over the religious life of the country.

Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University. He is the author, most recently, of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism. He blogs at justice-in-the-city.com.

Reprinted from Sh’ma (www.shma.com) October 2013, as part of a larger conversation on the Kotel.

Supporting roles: Men stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall and Pussy Riot: Unlikely partners in the same struggle
MKs join hundreds of women praying at Western Wall, defying law 

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    1. aristeides

      Excellent article. I have to say that you’ve convinced me, despite my own natural impulse to take the feminist side against the religious establishment.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Same here, although I am dead against the ever-increasing phenomenon in Israel of exclusion of women in everyday life, one element of which is the right to simply inhabit the same physical space as men. However, these women do raise a red flag for me because of my natural suspicion of anything that has to do with religion (I’m of the opinion that religious people suffer from some form of mental illness).

        Reply to Comment
        • Vadim

          “I’m of the opinion that religious people suffer from some form of mental illness”

          With such inability to accept other people, I think you would have been a wonderful Haredi if you were born in the right family.

          Reply to Comment
          • Elisabeth

            “With such inability to accept other people, I think you would have been a wonderful Haredi if you were born in the right family.”

            I loved that! Funny but also contains some truth!

            Reply to Comment
          • Carl Too

            I’m not sure I’d describe it as madness, but as far as wilful stupidity goes, I’d rank the religious as trailblazers.

            And that’s not a good thing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Vadim

            I disagree.

            Theists and atheists are pretty much the same. They are convinced they are right based on nothing but a feeling or belief. Both act completely rationally based on their set of assumptions. One assumes there is a divine deity and thus his actions make sense, the other does not think there’s a divine entity. There is not (and cannot be) a shred of evidence to support either view. For most people, the family into which they are born dictates whether they’ll be religious or not. People don’t become dumber because they were born into a religious family, their simply receive a different set of basic assumptions.

            I’m agnostic. I honestly don’t know if there’s a divine deity or not. I find both sides, with their unshakable certainty that only they are correct, a bit immature.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Carl Too

      Convinced me too. Whilst I’m not opposed to WoW per se, I can’t help seeing them as an inherently conservative movement, with little relevance to feminism or wider IS/PL issues.

      It reminds me of campaigns to increase the number of women who chair FTSE 100 companies: why demand equality for the privileged?

      Oh, and being an atheist does make it all appear as a well meaning, but colossal waste of time to me.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Elli Fischer

      Here is a link to the piece I wrote, and that Aryeh mentioned. Readers may judge for themselves whether I say what Aryeh suggests I saw. It was posted to the WoW website in May, 2012:

      I broadly agree with Aryeh that discussions of holy sites in this corner of the globe are often decontextualized. Israeli Jews are often themselves ignorant of such issues (I live in Modi’in – a “new” Israeli city in pre-1967 Israel. The city’s numerous archaeological sites include 5 villages that were depopulated in 1948, and that is only within the city’s actual municipal borders. I doubt many Modiinites know that these sites exist, let alone where they are. More to the present point, MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) recently joined WoW but expressed that she did not support Jewish rights on the Temple Mount because the latter is on occupied territory. The ignorance extends to the government itself.

      Tension at holy sites is not limited to Jewish-Muslim or intra-Jewish relations, either. The tensions between Christian denominations over the administration of churches (the Holy Sepulchre, the Nativity, etc.) have persisted for centuries. There is Christian-Muslim tension over holy sites in Nazareth.

      And yet, I disagree with Aryeh that the way to address these tensions is to ignore them until larger issues are discussed and sorted out. On the contrary, I believe that coming to resolutions that are not zero-sum games (through spatial and temporal sharing of sites) actually promote peaceful coexistence. Such arrangements are already in place in numerous sites held sacred by both Jews and Muslims (Nebi Samwil, Me’arat Ha-machpelah, etc.).

      Reply to Comment
    4. Arieh Zimmerman

      It is perhaps reasonable to think that concentrating on one problem at a time will allow of better results.
      On the other hand, it is perhaps not too much to expect that some of the women supporting “Women of the Wall” also support some of the other more important tasks of our time.

      Reply to Comment