Western Wall: Nexus For Gender And Religious-Nationalist Conflict – OpEd


This week, Israel’s far-right government acceded to its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and torpedoed a compromise years in the making, which had been intended to offer Israeli women a means of worshipping at the Western Wall in an egalitarian manner.  Women of the Wall have long protested the segregation and second-class status of women who choose to pray at the sacred site.  The government’s rejection of the carefully-crafted agreement has been felt as a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Jewish women–and their male supporters–who wish to see Israeli Judaism treat women with the respect they deserve.

This Orthodox rabbi’s excellent piece, Is the Western Wall a Kind of Idolatry, provoked a great deal of thought about the role this sacred site plays in both the struggle for gender equality, religious equity, and nationalist fervor in Israeli society.  Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein provides an excellent overview of the historical role the Wall played in Jewish religious thought.  He especially notes its gradual transformation from a solely religious site to an altar dedicated to Israeli nationalist-chauvinism.  He also notes that in the process, the Wall has lost much of its power as a solely spiritual symbol, and been cheapened as it has been co-opted by Israeli Jewish nationalists and holy warriors against Islam.

Israeli philosopher Yeshaya Leibowitz was the first to portray the Kotel, as it was appropriated by religious nationalist extremists, as a site for idolatry.  In other words, what had once been a sacred site had now been defiled and shorn of much of its spiritual value.  The same can be said of the desecration of the ‘land of Israel’ in the aftermath of the 1967 War.  At one time, Jews prayed for their return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple.  But no Jew ever prayed for ownership of the land as settlers do today.  God owned the land, not Jews.  We were only God’s servants fulfilling his vision.  And when Jews deviated from serving God, they were punished by exile, according to traditional belief.  Israeli Jews who pursue this annihilationist vision are betraying God’s vision and very well may be punished in the same way for doing so.

Diaspora Jews who yearned for centuries for the return to Eretz Yisrael never prayed for the destruction of another people or religious shrine in order to achieve that aspiration.  That is new and that is alien to ancient Jewish tradition.  And that is what Leibowitz railed against and rightfully so.

I’ve written many times here in the past that the conflict between Israel and its neighbors is political and should always be so.  Those Israelis who wish to see the conflict continue forever or who believe Israel can vanquish its enemies utterly and fully, understand that if they introduce a religious element into the conflict, it can never be solved.  A problem that is solely political may be resolved through diplomacy and negotiation.  A political issue overlaid with a religious veneer can never be resolved.  The introduction of the divine into the mix makes such problems insoluble.

This is especially true in societies riven by conflict when the two rival sides consist of different religions.  India and Pakistan are an excellent example.  And within India, which has a sizable Muslim minority, radical Hindus (known as Hinduvta) exploited such rivalry in 1992 to destroy the 16th-century Babar mosque in Ayodhya, in order to replace it with a Hindu shrine to the god Ram.

This is precisely the danger posed by the Jewish-Muslim rivalry at the Temple Mount-Haram al Sharif.  Like the Hinduvta, Israeli settlers do not merely want to preserve their majority status, they wish to eliminate the “other.”  To wipe it from the nation’s consciousness so that there will only be a single exclusive, supreme religion.  To raze Haram al Sharif and replace it with a Third Holy Temple.  This would mean the triumph of theocracy and death of democracy.  Contrary to what liberal Zionists believe (and what I myself believed until a decade or so ago), a religious state that privileges a single religion cannot be democratic.  And Israel is a religious state with the thinnest veneer of democracy.  My former liberal Zionist friends would groan to read such a statement.  But the truth is that in an Israel that favors Jews in so many ways–and disenfranchises Muslim citizens in so many ways–democracy is only skin-deep, if that.

Returning to the role the Wall plays in the debate over gender and religious equity: Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel have long struggled to gain a foothold in Israeli life.  There are now a few Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel.  But the vast majority of religious Jews there are Orthodox.  The non-Orthodox movements comprise only about 10% of those identifying as religious or “traditional.”  This segment amounts to about 30% of all Israeli Jews.  So non-Orthodox Jews are a minority among a minority.  But they constitute the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who are affiliated with their local communities.  Additionally, due to an Orthodox monopoly over both religious life, and also important civil functions like birth, death, and marriage, religion plays a dominant role in the lives of all Israelis, whether they want it to or not.

This creates a huge fracture between the two sets of Jewish communities.  The Orthodox are monopolists in Israel but a distinct minority outside it.  And they show absolutely no interest in bridging that divide.  In fact, they constantly rub the noses of Diaspora Jews in it, declaring them fake Jews and worse.

Women of the Wall: Why the Kotel?

The Women of the Wall chose the Kotel as the site for their years’ long protest against Orthodox male monopoly.  They, of course, are not rallying merely for equality there.  They are rallying for gender equity in Israeli Jewish religion.  That is why they are a special threat to the Orthodox.  That is why these religious monopolists have mobilized the entire apparatus of the State (especially the police who enforce the laws in this space) to suppress the women’s revolt.

But there is a problem with the choice of the Wall as the locus of their protest.  The Wall is not just a religious site.  It has become, as I noted above, a nationalist-political site where the battle between the Israeli people is waged against the Arab-Muslims peoples who worship at the Haram al Sharif.  Women of the Wall have divorced themselves from this element of the conflict, just as Israelis as a whole have refused to grapple with the tough questions involved in seeking real peace with their Arab neighbors.

This was one of my main criticisms of the social justice movement (J14) of 2015, which took after the U.S. Occupy revolt.  The Israeli version focussed solely on social welfare and economic equity issues.  As critical as those were, they could never be fully addressed unless you also confronted the elephant in the room: the Occupation.  Most of the leaders of this movement rejected incorporating this analysis into its platform.  They prioritized internal Israeli issues over external ones, as if they could be approached separately.  This was a fatal flaw which caused the movement (in my view) to falter and lose its way.  Today, the very oligarchs and elites J14 was castigating are more powerful and entrenched than ever. Hardly anything has changed.  If anything, it has become worse.

The Women of the Wall protest, as worthy as its goals may be, reveals the same liberal Zionist myopia.  It suggests that the issue of religious and gender rights may be separated into discrete compartments; that they may be isolated from the issue of religious sovereignty over the entire holy site.  As I see it, if you want to make the Wall a focus for protest, you must acknowledge the entire range of issues situated within it.

A Haaretz headline yesterday summarized my own disquiet with the WoW movement: Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop Dead.  It was meant to echo the famous New York Daily News headline after then-Pres. Gerald Ford refused to offer economic relief to a nearly bankrupt New York City.  In the Israeli case, it’s meant to dramatize the disdain in which Bibi Netanyahu holds American Jews.  But why should this come as a shock to anyone?

If you are a liberal Zionist your hope that Israel can become a democracy springs eternal.  You pine for such a transformation.  You wait for it endlessly as Orthodox Jews wait for the messiah.  Like them, you do little except pray for it.  You absolutely do not take firm, practical action to achieve it.  You wait for Israel to somehow do the right thing and become what you hoped it could be.

Israelis don’t care much about gender rights except perhaps in a vague theoretical way.  They don’t care much about Diaspora Jews.  Sure, if there’s a war they’ll care because they’ll expect you to lobby your government to resupply them with weapons.  But in the interim?  Not so much.  It is naïve to think that Israelis will raise this issue to a high priority unless they’re severely kicked in the shins.  And this is what liberal Zionists (among which I include WoW) are unwilling to do.

Why and how would Israel care unless you were willing to put everything on the line to make it so?  You can’t vote in an Israeli election, so why would you believe Netanyahu would put your interests on a par with the powerful political machine represented by the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, who are the very spine of the current far-right government?  Believing that Israel can magically become something it is not is the height of naiveté, unless you’re willing to take decisive, even radical action to make it so.  Liberal Zionism, almost by definition, cannot and will not do so.  By confronting the problem with half-measures they are, in effect, dooming Israel.  It is a sad, dispiriting fact.  And I say this as someone who once was a liberal Zionist.

This article was published at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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