Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu quietly came to an agreement with Haredi leaders to ban women from reading the Torah in front of the Western Wall. The surreptitious talks were not widely reported and no official announcement was made to clarify this other than an official statement in response to reporters’ queries saying that “the prime minister supports the status quo and respects all Jewish streams.” While this declaration is vague as to the context, it is nonetheless another example of how Bibi does not represent the people he serves, does not hold true to the founding principles of the State, and is more concerned with keeping his coalition than actually advancing the Jewish nation.
From the standpoint of Jewish law, there is no prohibition for women to read from the Torah scroll. In fact, many Orthodox congregations welcome the participation of women in this rite with some having services exclusively for women, and other bold congregations allowing for women to participate during the main services attended by men and women. However, religious law or “Halacha” is not the issue here, nor is the narrow mindedness and blatant sexism of the Haredi factions. What is at issue is the fact that a prime minister used this for political gain and then embarrassed the office he holds by stating he respects Jews of all kinds when it is clear from the evidence that he does not.
The usage of religion for political gain is abhorrent and a sign of how the principles which the State of Israel were founded on have been and continue to be ignored. Israel is a country that is home to a myriad of beliefs and cultures all the while openly discriminating against a vast majority of its citizens. By capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox through laws based on religious interpretation, by creating a religious entity that has legally binding powers such as the Rabbinate, by ceding control over the holy sites to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Israel has effectively failed in its stated mission.
Every Jew should feel comfortable at the Western Wall and yet there is a need for sensitivity when it comes to religious beliefs. For this reason it is understandable that there is a barrier separating men from women at the Wall as many would not feel comfortable praying next to the opposite sex. However, the Wall has become a symbol of how repressive Israeli society is to women, and how the dysfunctional the Israeli government really is when it comes to truly caring for and considering all citizens.
Jewish tradition holds that women are the rocks of our society and the torchbearers of the religion and yet they have no true equality. One can argue that the world is sexist and based on a patriarchal system in which women are second to men. Unfortunately, this is absolutely true. However, when it comes to something so personal as religious belief, to criminalize the way one chooses to practice their religion is despicable and a throwback to the dark ages. Israel is not the rest of the world. It was supposed to be better than that — more advanced and a model for the rest of the world to follow. Our women are the rocks of our lives — we celebrate them in prayer and songs and elevate them in holiness above all else. Yet, because a prime minister needs the votes of 12% of the population in order to maintain his hold on power, he openly discriminates against 50% of them. He threw them to the back of the bus knowing he will not be held accountable because he can hide behind the rabbi of the Western Wall, the Rabbinate and the feted complacency of the citizens of Israel.
Israel was founded as a home for all Jews; an entity that cares more about one’s bloodline than whether someone is observant or not. It was never meant to be a state that is governed by one stream’s definition of biblical or talmudic law; it was intended to be inclusive and tolerant of all with laws based on fairness and inclusiveness for each of her citizens. By siding with the Haredim and declaring that the holiest site of the Jewish faith is governed by a strict Orthodox code, Netanyahu has effectively sanctioned the ultra-Orthodox as the “real” Jews and cast aside the rights of the majority of Israel’s population.
Power corrupts. Bibi has used his to maintain control while granting real power to a small segment who have time and again demonstrated their lack of tolerance for anything other than their way of life. The State of Israel is failing in its mission, and Netanyahu will go down in history as the leader who did not just let it happen, he enabled it to happen.