Four Questions for “Women of the Wall” On the 46th Anniversary of the Six Day War

by Cantor Michael Davis

Every Israeli politician knows that, before attending election rallies from Nahariya to Nitzana, she will first have to fly to that other center of Israeli politics: New York. To win an election, the Israeli politician must win the hearts and financial backing of the Jews of New York and other major Jewish centers in North America. Israeli NGOs, too, travel the same American route, campaigning for credibility, viability and dollars in synagogue basements and the living rooms of Jewish supporters  across the United States.

Israeli left wing politician Anat Hoffman, knows this political truth well. Recently,  her organization, “Women of the Wall” achieved a major breakthrough when it was adopted by the mainstream American  Jewish community as its cause célèbre. Several times a week, I get a mass mailing from someone in my professional and personal networks on behalf of Women of the Wall. No other organization cuts through the vague barrage of mass mailings the way  the American campaign for “Women of the Wall” does. Outdoor solidarity prayer services in city centers across the U.S. and a rabbinic mission to support Women of the Wall are signs of the remarkable resonance this campaign enjoys in the American Jewish community.

As an Israeli, back when I was still living in Jerusalem, I supported “Women of the Wall.” I voted for Anat Hoffman’s Meretz party on the Jerusalem City Council. Today, as clergy in a liberal synagogue, of course I am an advocate for the full inclusion of women and girls in Jewish ritual life.  Yet, I have serious reservation about the American campaign for “Women of the Wall.”

Here are four questions for the “Women of the Wall” campaign:

1. “Women of the Wall” wants the Western Wall, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the world, to allow women’s participation in ritual, a deeply held American Jewish value that extends from Reform to the liberal wing of modern Orthodoxy in America. In Israel, this activism is upsetting to mainstream Israeli Orthodox (and irrelevant to the vast majority of non-Orthodox Israelis). But the tone of the campaign’s supports seems to relish taking the battle to the Orthodox. The energy for fighting this battle comes in no small part from a desire to defeat the Orthodox.

Confusingly, back in the U.S., the liberal Jewish community holds the Orthodox in high regard: they are true Jews. Donating money to Jewish Federation is a standard way of expressing one’s Jewish commitment. In my hometown of Chicago, the bulk of the monies that the JUF raises from the liberal Jewish community are given to local gender-segregated Orthodox synagogues and their associated institutions. To be a good Jew is to honor the Orthodox by supporting institutions that bar women from ritual.Why are the Orthodox our friends in the United States but our adversaries in Israel?

2. The official practice in the Jewish community has been to avoid criticizing Israel. This is dictated as the responsibility of non-Israeli Jews. Many – but not all – of the people who are signing on to the Women of the Wall campaign comply with (and therefore, at the very least, implicitly enforce through social approval) this policy. Now, through its advocacy for Women of the Wall, the Jewish community is advertising to the world that Israel discriminates against women. What a shanda!

Why grant this particular campaign the rare exemption from the Jewish imperative to always look out for Israel’s good name?

3. In the densely populated square mile of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall plaza is a new-fangled anomaly. This open space was created immediately after the Israeli army captured the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, exactly 46 years ago.. Overnight, Israeli bulldozers demolished the Mughrabi Quarter, clearing the way for what we know as the Western Wall plaza. The Israeli army first evicted the (non-Jewish) residents of the Mughrabi Quarter. At least one man was killed when he did not get out of his home in time.

However important the cause of women’s prayer is, isn’t it unseemly to focus the campaign of women’s right to pray at the scene of death and expropriation?

4. Back in the 1970s, the organized American Jewish community provided the essential legal framework and key political backing to launch the State of Israel’s signature national project of the last four decades, namely, the colonization of the West Bank. We created this reality.

The organized Jewish community continues to provide financial support and political backing to Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies. The silent majority of American Jews, through its silence, endorses the community leadership’s backing of Israel’s well-publicized injustices on the West Bank. Through our continued silence, we enable Israel’s ongoing destructive (and, frankly, self-destructive) stance.

How can we own the issue of women at prayer when we ignore our responsibility for the far more serious, ongoing problems that we did help to create, namely, the State of Israel’s violent campaign against its Palestinian population?

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5 thoughts on “Four Questions for “Women of the Wall” On the 46th Anniversary of the Six Day War

  1. You are perfectly correct, and I applaud you for taking this syand. It seems that many of my sisters care more about a narrow “women’s” issue, than about the soul of the entire nation.
    Silvia Tennenbaum

  2. #3,4 are completely out of context and are inaccurate. Typical leftist self hating Jew who is fixated on Israel’s imperfections while ignoring serious human rights violations in all of her neighbors.

    • If you would post your sources, I can relate to any comments about accuracy.

      Regarding context, Israel’s goals political vision and goals regarding the Western Wall are as old Zionism and predate any violence or awareness of Israel’s neighbors. In particular, the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter was not defended, even by the Israeli army, in the terms you use.
      Pointing the finger at the faults of others is not a compelling defense of one’s own failings.

  3. The reality you are describing bears important relationships to the “homonationalism” described so trenchantly by Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University. Women’s rights are in fashion these days as a key aspect of U.S. nationalism. Naked imperial intervention can no longer fly in the 21st century, and so it needs to be dressed up with a truncated version of women’s rights and gay rights. If you look at liberal American Jewish support for the Women of the Wall from this perspective, it has all too many similarities to similar causes supported by liberal opinion in the US in the name of women’s rights.

  4. I just came across this historical note which indicate that house demolitions that cleared the way for the Western Wall plaza were done to make it possible for women to pray at the Wall:

    In a June 21, 1969 letter published in “Ner (a “monthly for political and social problems and for Jewish-Arab rapprochement” supported by Martin Buber among others), Dr. Shimon Shereshevsky reports on a Saturday morning discussion among Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall following the previous night’s explosion in Jerusalem. This came following the planned detonation of some Palestinian homes. “The majority believed” that, an “explosion which had occurred the previous evening was meant as a reprisal for the demolition of Arab houses in the vicinity of the Western Wall, and they strongly condemned the action of the Ministry of Religious Affairs (‘why did they have to do it? – so as to extend the area in front of the Wall so that men and women can pray together’)”.
    Shereshevsky is quoting the leader of the Western Wall archeological excavation, Prof. Mazar.
    Palestinians saw the detonation of the houses as “an act of provocation, so as to give the ‘Zionist’ authorities the pretext to carry out further acts of confiscation, demolition etc.”

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