I Cannot Stand with Women of the Wall

October 1, 2013
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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.

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.1 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.

1  haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2069796

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Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Board, is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. His latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism. He usually davens with Shtibl, an independent minyan he co-founded in Los Angeles; and he rouses rabble with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and CLUE-LA: Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. He blogs at justice-in-the-city.com.

5 Comments

  1. 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:
    http://womenofthewall.org.il/2012/05/an-ironic-observation-on-freedom-of-religion-at-judaisms-holiest-site-wow-supporter-elli-fischer/

    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.).

    Posted by
  2. ” 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;”

    This line sounds like you haven’t ever talked to many Israelis (specifically, I am thinking of those not in your social class, like most Mizrahim). Most Israelis who call themselves “secular” profess to believe in much of traditional Jewish theology, and practice a subset of mitzvot like Shabbat candles and separating meat and milk. So it’s not at all surprising that 30% of “secular” Jews would like the Temple rebuilt. The truly nonreligious Jews of Israel, such as most kibbutznikim, form a vibrant but small minority which fits easily into the remaining 70%.

    Posted by
    Shlomo
  3. Good point. I will lobby to get a plaque commemorating the Mughrabi neighbourhood put up in the upper plaza as part of our conditions for moving our prayer service to the pluralistic site.

    Posted by
    Rachel Yeshurun
  4. Dear Aryeh, thanks so much for posting and writing this piece. It is moving and thought-provoking and captures the complexity of what appear to be overly simplistic movements. I will be teaching this in class, it is perfect for a lesson on “intersectionalities”.

    Posted by
    Ayesha S. Chaudhry
  5. These issues are implicated in numerous dilemmas affecting the decisions of Jews in the diaspora to support activities and visit sites involving contested places and topics in Israel. There are many activities and sites that one might choose to refrain from, due to association with ultranationalist perspectives and silencing of other histories. I would question why specifically take a stand with regard to Women of the Wall. Why not take a stand with respect to, say, bar mitzvah trips or the itineraries of Israel travel programs?

    There are many examples around the world, in many cultures, of religious and cultural identities asserted via the bodies of women, by circumscribing women’s dress, movements, and presence in public space. Abstaining from support of Women of the Wall is acceding to one of these limits. Yes, in a better world one would want to acknowledge and enable multiple ethnic and religious histories and reverences of the same physical place. This goal is furthered in one small, incremental step by Rachel Yeshurun’s proposal to have a plaque. I don’t see how this goal is enhanced by excluding Jewish women.

    Posted by
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