A Plaza Of One’s Own

How would you feel if someone usurped your authority in raising your children, or the ability to manage your own finances, instead giving an outside figure, with a radically different worldview, the license to make all the decisions? And what if, on top of this sense of helplessness, it came to light that this person is entrusting your important matters to a system of corruption and nepotism that actively harm your rights and best interests?

Unpleasant, to say the least. In such a case, you would surely be moved to battle to regain control over the things most dear and essential to you, and with good reason.

Last month, it became clear that the rabbi appointed as authority of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, once again took advantage of his position for the worse, this time allowing a convicted sex offender, Rabbi Berland, to enter the Plaza in his vehicle, driving it all the way into the men’s prayer section on the eve of the second part of the Pesach holiday; this all occurred at the same time that Rabinowitz fought tooth-and-nail to prevent women from praying out loud with a Torah in the women’s section.

Is it fair to complain about Rabinowitz  – when the government granted nearly-boundless authority over one of the most sacred sites to the Jewish people, to a person who represents an intolerant, minority faction? Of course! But the truly guilty party is the government itself, for its continued disinterest in taking seriously the needs and concerns of the broader society.

After reversing the government’s agreement on the Kotel Compromise plan, the Prime Minister is offering moldy crumbs of what promised to be a reasonable and appropriate resolution to thirty years of conflict over the character of the Western Wall.

The PM promised to establish a new plaza at Robinson’s Arch, guaranteeing a plaza with a respectable appearance, independent management by pluralistic leadership, and a decent State-provided budget. However, Netanyahu recanted his word (succumbing once again to Ultra-Orthodox pressure), and has declared, as of late, his reversal on most of the terms to which he agreed. After an involved process of negotiations, Netanyahu will deny our demands for visibility (because, certainly, the “scandalous” women praying vocally and with a Torah scroll must be hidden), and cooperation in the site’s management (apparently only the Ultra-Orthodox can manage public religious sites). So which parts of the agreement are still moving forward? Essentially, reupholstering the back of the segregated “Mehadrin” buses, for the sake of the excluded women.

Our leaders demonstrate a blindness to history and short sightedness, focusing and aiming only toward the future they want to see, with no interest or willingness to learn from the past. Specifically, I am referring to the changes that began at the Western Wall in 1967, which transferred control of the site to a minority group of fundamentalists. Perhaps you recall when the mechitzah  (partition) stood at mid-leg height? Or when ushers did not chase female worshippers, coercing them to cover their shoulders, elbows, and knees? Do you remember the days when any visitor to the Kotel could freely access the sensations of joy, sanctity, and liberation?

Ultra-Orthodox organizations (Leeba, The Head Rabbinate, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and others) are fighting fiercely to gain control over the new plaza. From their standpoint, this is perfectly reasonable – if they allow the new, egalitarian plaza to be managed by pluralistic organizations, how can they enforce their new and degrading demands in the name of “the religion” and the “honor of the society” (meaning, their religion, and their honor)?! If they receive the authority to manage the new section, it will not be long before the site features an opaque mechitzah, privileges for sex offenders, and the silencing of women.

Will we not learn from the mistakes of the past? Will we yield the authority to manage the section of the Kotel to the very organizations against whom we have been battling for thirty arduous years?

In the past, G-d made a covenant with our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; this covenant has grown stale, and the time is ripe to renew it, this time with a slight “upgrade” to include the Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This covenant will obligate us to them as well, just as we are bound to the covenant of the Patriarchs. To their merit, and to ours. This covenant will be obligated to protect the rights and liberties of women, just as it does for men. At the Kotel too.

About the Author
Lesley Sachs is the 2014 recipient of the NCJW Jewel Bellush Outstanding Israeli Feminist award and was one of the founding members of “Isha L’isha – Haifa’s Feminist Center” and worked for 10 years in the Israel Women’s Network. Lesley served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), vice president of the World Union For Progressive Judaism and founding director of Project, Kesher Israel. She is currently working as the executive director of Women of the Wall. She served on the board of directors for the Jerusalem Women’s Shelter, board of directors for the JNF-KKL and currently she is chair of the pre-army mechina Michmanim in Jaffa.
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