Sometimes when we are in the thick of change, it helps to get perspective from the past. With Women of the Wall in mind, I invite you to read this imaginary dialogue between two white men perched on stools at a North Carolina lunch counter in February 1960.
Important Note: The ideas I express below are expressly my own – there is no intention to represent formal positions, or anyone else’s views. The essay offers perspectives to a conversation about issues that Israel, the Jewish People, and humanity face in our time. As responses indicate, this piece is provocative. You might or might not agree. That is absolutely your prerogative. With our differences, we can still encounter one another. I have altered some of the language from the original version. I have no intention to offend anyone, and apologize if I have. If you do choose to read ahead, please try to do so with an open mind and with the intention to understand these views. If you choose to respond, please do so thoughtfully, substantively in relation to the issues under consideration, and with dignity.
“It’s getting bad, Joe. They’re coming in here asking for a sandwich.”
“What are you talking about, Hal?”
“They’d better not come drinking from our water fountains, either.”
“We can’t take it.”
“Soon they’ll be sending their kids to our schools.”
“That just isn’t right, Hal.”
“I told you, Joe. I reckon they’re going to want to ride like we do on the bus too. And pray in our churches, Lord save our souls!”
“In all my born days, I haven’t heard such a thing. It’s against God’s good plan, Hal. They aren’t like us. They’re getting ready to bring us all down, ruin America.”
“Everything we built and stand tall for, Joe, our pride and glory.”
“I’ve had enough of them around our places, Hal.”
Four black students heading toward the lunch counter overhear the talk. They approach Hal and Joe —
Lord o’ Lord, we didn’t know we offended you so.”
“We haven’t been right coming to your places and doing things like you do – eating and drinking, reading, praying, swimming, peeing.”
“We’re really sorry we hurt your feelings. We’re going to pack it all up and move directly on over to our rightful places, where we really belong.”
The four black students at the whites-only lunch counter in the Greensboro North Carolina Woolworth did not turn their tails and leave. Nor did the women who assembled for peaceful prayers 25 years ago at the Kotel. On the second day at Woolworth’s, more than 60 people sat together, quietly reading books and studying. Each subsequent month, women returned to pray. Woolworth national headquarters issued a statement that the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregation policy. The administrator of the Kotel issues the same instruction about Women of the Wall, to “abide by local custom“.
When 300 blacks showed up on the third day, lunch counter sit-ins broke out around the American south. After 25 years, nearly 1,000 women from throughout the Jewish world showed up to pray on Rosh Hodesh Kislev. In 1960, President Eisenhower commented on the growing black movement that sought to use transportation, restrooms, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and museums,
I am deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.
As blacks kept up their presence in the public spaces of the south, and civil rights ideas spread, policy shifted away from acquiescing to the Jim Crow laws and racist intimidation and violence – church burnings, murders, beatings, lynchings. American society generated a new ethical principle: racial equality.
In Israel, the courts have progressed over 25 years of Women of the Wall’s perseverance. The Supreme Court and the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court affirm WoW’s prayer as accepted custom at the Kotel. The Israeli government is being bullied by threats and intimidation, and political machinations. Rather than fulfilling ethical principles and its legal obligations, the government proposes to remove Women of the Wall from the Kotel to an enhanced separate but equal Robinson’s Arch area. The Kotel would become an exclusively ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Though WoW have successfully legitimized women’s prayer with tallit, tefillin, and reading from the Torah at the Kotel de jure and de facto, women who observe these practices will be shunted to the Robinson’s Arch area when and if it is made ready.
Irrespective of the offense to deeply-held racist convictions and interests, America worked to expunge racism from its public and private places, and to enforce respect for the dignity and rights of blacks. Legislation, pro-active government policies (such as bussing), positive discrimination, and education, gradually shifted the paradigm from segregation toward integration. Whereas racism was the norm in vast regions of society, the civil rights movement taught humanity that discrimination on the grounds of race is wrong. Period.
The next stage in the progression of human ethics is to embrace the full humanity of women—under God, and under the law. On the heels of the civil rights movement, women rose up to demonstrate that another paradigm needs shifting. Our societies tolerate discrimination against women and women’s rights particularly under the sacred aegis of religion. Neither religious beliefs nor any other convictions that discriminate on the basis of sex can justify preventing women who seek to exercise core human freedoms in public space—including prayer and access to holy sites. There is a Jewish and civil obligation to respect people; no right or freedom to prevent people from praying exists.
Hey Joe, Hal, we changed our minds. We’re going to sit ourselves down right here, and have the sandwich we deserve. We’re hungry.”