A House Divided

A lot has been written about the “split” in Women of the Wall. More has been written about a small rift in the women’s organization since the government’s approval of a plan to build a third, pluralist section at the Western Wall than has been written about the opposition of the Islamic Wakf, the Palestinians, the Jordanians and archaeologists combined.

Last week a journalist called me. He said, “You know there is a lot of criticism against Women of the Wall…” He paused. I’m sure he was just formulating his question, but I instinctively filled the silence with comic relief, “REALLY?!,” I proclaimed facetiously. We are no stranger to both great support and extreme criticism- Women for the Wall, Original WOW, Men of WOW, Friends of WOW. It reads like a Dr. Seuss book and is just as perplexing. It is not funny, though. It is painful to WOW leaders when the harsh attacks and even lies are coming from former WOW participants and some who still pray with us each month.

There is a small vocal group of women instigating and perpetuating conflict between women on the pages of the internet, and invoking our name in the process. So how do we respond? This is more of an ethical question than a strategic one.

Women of the Wall has two strict guiding tenets we rely on: pluralism and sisterhood.

Pluralism means embracing a myriad of voices and opinions. Before the Women of the Wall Executive Board voted whether or not to lead negotiations with the government towards a solution for respectful prayer for all at the Kotel, two representatives were nominated to reach out to our founders, consult with them and bring their voices, their votes to the Executive Board discussions. After the board voted spearhead negotiations, board members spent hours speaking with fellow Women of the Wall founders, listening to their concerns and clarifying the vision:

The Women of the Wall board, comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated religious women, believe that if we are given equal space and appropriate resources, our section of the Kotel- which will allow for both women’s group prayer and egalitarian prayer- will become the main, preferred Kotel prayer space over time. The space we know today as the Kotel has existed for less than 50 years and it was created and built by the Orthodox establishment. It is evolving into a space that is less and less open and welcoming to women, despite our great efforts to change this. If this space is considered holy, even with acts of public discrimination, disrespect and desecration happening there, then surely a space a few feet away along the same wall, which embodies respect for all of God’s creations will be sanctify-able.

There are people who agree and those who disagree with this vision and that is to be expected. One policy will not satisfy everyone. The media is fascinated by this disagreement because it can be exaggerated into a cat fight, especially because there are a few women who grab at the opportunity to debase others.

In the name of sisterhood, Women of the Wall rejects the notion of women fighting women, especially in the realm of the media. Disagreements, and even splits, are a natural part of a successful social movement. Women’s movements have always had a myriad of opinions and voices. Feminism is about choice for women, not condemning or shaming other women for their choices. Disagreement over a policy and organizing to promote a different policy is a valid response- but smearing the good name of Women of the Wall and its leaders in blogs and op eds, reducing our feminist achievements to cat-fighting and infighting, this is the true scandal. Women of the Wall has always refrained from participating in this and from commenting in response.

In real life, Women of the Wall continues to fight for women’s rights at the Western Wall. Our adversary is not other women, not those who disagree with a negotiated solution at the holy site and not even those who curse at us and protest our prayers. The true opponent is the government of Israel which grants power and authority to the ultra-orthodox establishment at the Kotel, while disregarding the diversity or plurality of Jewish religious expressions. Our focus should be on pressuring the Prime Minister and the government to ensure equal rights for women in the public sphere.

We have more in common than that which divides us. The goal remains the same: for women to pray freely and access to Torah scrolls for women at the Kotel. Women of the Wall leaders watch with pride at the success of other small, but dedicated, women’s prayers groups, that have succeeded in sneaking a Torah scroll into the women’s section, as we have done several times. After all, this is WOW’s struggle for- the right of any woman to come to the Kotel on any day and pray, read Torah, or celebrate a bat mitzvah. Working together, we can accomplish great things. Appropriation and ridicule of 27 years of women’s hard work and throwing around accusatory terms like betrayal and abandonment– dishonors us all. Shaming women whose opinions differ from one’s own and feeding this sexist media tendency hurts women on both ends of the argument. It takes away attention from the important issue: equality for women and girls.

It is time for Women of the Wall to stand together in the face of all the looming threats at the Kotel. The Mendelblit plan, which promised a third, pluralistic and feminist prayer space at the Kotel, faces serious opposition and its implementation-now or in the future- is still an open question. The Supreme Court petition may allow women access to Torah scrolls in the women’s section, but it also may strip women of the rights won by Women of the Wall in the 2013 Sobel decision altogether.

During his first run for the presidency, which he lost, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Politics can be tricky, but pluralism and sisterhood are values we can hold on to and rely on for a lifetime. Women of the Wall invites all women to pray together for freedom and liberation on Hol Hamoed Passover Sunday April 24, 2016 at 8:45 AM in the women’s section of the Kotel, for the first ever women’s Priestly Blessing, Birkat Hakohanot at the Kotel.

About the Author
Shira Pruce is an activist and communications professional. After living in Israel for 13 years, she has recently moved back to New Jersey. She is former director of public relations for Women of the Wall, and has advanced the work of MASLAN- the Negev’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Support Center and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, to name just a few. She received her BA in Women and Gender Studies at Douglass College, Rutgers University.