I am always wary about criticizing Israel in public. Israel gets enough criticism from outside the Jewish community and increasingly from factions within the Jewish community. But sometimes, I have to speak out. Lately, the thing that has forced me to complain about the Israeli government has little to do with the Palestinian conflict and more to do with the government’s assault on religious freedom. Believe it or not it is easier to be a Christian or Muslim in Israel than to be a Conservative or Reform Jew.
Though there are a myriad of issues including marriage, divorce, conversion and burial that are affected, it is praying at the Kotel that has become ground zero in the fight for religious pluralism in Israel. For decades the Conservative and Reform movement and organizations like WOW (Woman of the Wall) have fought for equal access for prayer at the Kotel. Every month on Rosh Chodesh WOW meets at the Kotel to try and hold a women’s prayer service on the female side of the Kotel. They are forced to try and smuggle in a Torah and are taunted and harassed from both sides of the separation fence between the men’s and women’s section of the lower Kotel plaza. Several years ago an unofficial and unsanctioned egalitarian prayer area was created near the southern eastern corner of the temple mount. It is an area often referred to as Robinson’s arch, named for the British archaeologists who uncovered the area. For years Conservative and Reform groups gathered there for Kabbalat Shabbat, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and other occasions.
Just recently I wrote in the shtender about what we thought were great advancements in compromise at the Kotel. The Netanyahu government had agreed to expand the egalitarian section near Robinson’s Arch and to furnish it with tables and chairs. They agreed to set up cabinets to house Torahs and prayer books. They agreed to create easier access to the sight from the main Kotel plaza. However, bowing from pressure from the ultra-Orthodox factions within the fragile Likkud coalition, they have recently reneged on those promises.
The most recent provocation occurred earlier last week when Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of the two Chief Rabbis (Sepharidic) of Israel descended to the egalitarian section near Robinson’s Arch with a group of yeshiva students and set up a mechitza (separation wall between men and women) and held worship services there. It was a clear statement that only orthodox worship would be tolerated anywhere at the Kotel.
In protest, a group of 300-500 Conservative, Reform and even Modern Orthodox Jews convened at the back of the Kotel plaza to hold an egalitarian prayer service. They were met by a throng of thugs from the ultra-Orthodox community who treated them with contempt and hatred – fellow Jews.
Below is an account from Rabbi Loren Sykes, one of my colleagues in Israel, who took part in the protest prayer service. He was spit on, shoved, called a Nazi and screamed at, all while the Israeli police looked on and did nothing to protect them. I am also including a link to a video Rabbi Sykes shot while in the middle of the fray, as well as an article about the incident. The fact that this is Jew versus Jew makes it all the more painful.
This is something our movement takes seriously and we will continue to fight for religious freedom in Israel. It is just a shame that in Israel it is the Jews that have to fight for that freedom.
Thank you everyone for the notes and calls of support following yesterday's events at the Western Wall. I appreciate it very much.
I am doing just fine physically, mentally and spiritually.
These unfortunate events remind me that making Aliyah and being a Zionist aren't Only about the great and beautiful things Israel stands for.
It is also about being part of the greatest experiment in Jewish sovereignty in over 2,000 years.
It is about making sure that the incredible State of Israel remains the Jewish State for ALL Jews and not just a thin slice of fundamentalist biryonim (loosely translates as goons).
It is about acting to ensure that Israel remains Jewish and democratic and pluralistic.
In the end, I feel sad for the yeshiva boys - clearly not the cream of the crop (the real Talmidei chachamim were in the bet Midrash learning Torah) - who are indoctrinated to hate anything that is different than they are.
I am embarrassed for their parents and teachers who failed to teach them Derekh Eretz and menshlichkeit.
My anger is focused on the Police, who failed to protect Israeli citizens from physical assault, who were negligent in their duty and who, with only one exception, stood around and watched as we were physically assaulted.
In the end, however, yesterday's events just strengthened my Zionism and my knowledge that Aliyah was the right, next choice in life.
Shabbat Shalom and thank you again for the support, love and friendship.