Sara Conway

Bully or Bullied? That is the Question

Emotions continue to run high at the Kotel, as the quest to balance Jewish values and Traditional practices, unity, democracy and religious pluralism in Israel continues. Before the High Holy Days, the government built a temporary, expanded, 24 hour a day access, prayer area in the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel, complete with Torahs, Chumashim and Siddurim, designated for non-Orthodox prayer services.

My initial reaction was hopeful, I thought, maybe this very public and sometimes-dirty battle over the Kotel would be over. If this plan were implemented, all Jewish denominations would be able to pray comfortably at the Kotel and in the spirit of compromise all traditions and customs would be respected. I dreamed that this would be the first step toward respect and unity between different Jewish denominations. I thought, maybe instead of infighting, we could spend more time learning about each other and the basis for our disagreements. Maybe we can epitomize peace and understanding and show the world that even though we disagree about how to run our prayer services, we can respect each other’s rights and beliefs. Maybe we can agree to disagree.

A number of statements put out by individuals and groups who support Conservative, Reform and Pluralistic prayer services at the Kotel that seemed to be cautiously optimistic and supportive of this plan. Some felt it was the first step toward government support for pluralistic prayer in the public sphere, while at the same time respecting the traditions and values of Traditional, Orthodox, Chasidish and Secular Jews who prefer the maintenance of the status quo. There was a glimmer of hope – that true Jewish pluralism and unity would prevail at the Kotel.

Unfortunately, the hope that this compromise brought, did not last long and the idealistic picture of peace, acceptance and compromise was quickly destroyed. Instead of using this a stepping stone to move forward and increase productive dialogue, WoW summarily rejected the plan, as they did not feel that this proposal met their needs. They quickly staged a 24-hour “sit in,” where up to 12 members of WoW, spent the night protesting at the Kotel. Messages were uploaded on U-tube stating that “50% of the population,” namely woman, were being prevented from praying freely. Images of Civil Rights activists were conjured up, reinvigorating all the anti-Chareidi tabloids and anti-Jewish press worldwide. A number of news items and Op-Eds came out that left the impression that Judaism and Israel treat women as second-class citizens. To add fuel to the fire, women’s liberation style sit-ins were scheduled at the Israeli Consulates in San Francisco and New York to raise awareness for the terrible plight of women in Israel and Rabbis all around the world were encouraged to use their pulpits, during the High Holidays, to advocate for WoW‘s cause.

In both mainstream and social media, people who wished to maintain traditional Jewish practices were slammed, demonized and labeled as bullies, religious extremists, un-inclusive troglodytes and Anti-Zionistic. In contrast, WoW was portrayed as a small group of crusaders and freedom fighters, who are repeatedly attacked by an incited minority that controls the government. This battle was presented as a territorial war, that was about greed and power. WoW and those they represent were portrayed as women who were being violated and bullied by Religious fundamentalists. However, upon deeper examination and analysis, I began to ask myself, minus the media spin and PR work, who is the real bully in this situation and who is being bullied.

According to Dictionary.Com, a bully is blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing, person who habitually badgers and bothers smaller or weaker people. Who are the ones being quarrelsome and blustering? Who are the aggressors and who are the ones who are smaller and weaker? I do not think these distinctions are as clear as WOW would have us believe.

WoW claims to represent the majority of world Jews. They have financial backing from organizations that pursue religious and political change in Israel. They launch massive fundraising campaigns, where they sell T-Shirts and I-phone Apps. They have a team of media representative, lobbyists, PR experts and lawyers. In contrast, the representatives of Traditional and Orthodox Jewry have no professional PR relations department and no organized financial backing; they have no lawyers and no newspapers in their back pockets. Who is the weaker group in this equation and who is the bully?

Traditional Jews believe that ancient practices, dictate separate male and female prayer sections. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, male and female, in Israel and around the world, believe that a Mechitza is essential for proper prayer. They believe that the laws of modesty and Kol Isha, as they are delineated in the Shulchan Orech ,with roots in the both the written and oral Torah. WoW often misrepresents these laws and customs, as designed by men in order to subjugate women. They prey on the fears of the general-public of religious extremists who are suicide bombers and terrorists.

WoW’s leaders have stated publicly in the world media and at speaking engagements that the Kotel is just an opportunity to bring about religious and political reform in Israel. One leader was quoted on the BBC, indicating that her ultimate goal is to eliminate the Mechitza entirely for the majority of the day and create a national state monument at the Kotel site. She would also like to eliminate any policies that support more Traditional Jewish practices and Religious beliefs from the public sphere. As a vehicle for change, WoW introduces religious practices that are contrary to the beliefs of the majority of their fellow worshippers and insists on occupying the exact same space, without any regard or respect for their peers beliefs. They are unwilling to compromise, as a compromise would be seen as less than- they feel it is their right to pray as they please- no need to respect the customs or beliefs of anyone else. Who is being quarrelsome and overbearing?

When 10,000 Jewish women and high school and college-aged students, were on summer vacation, and still came to pray and silently support a cause of the ultimate importance to them. Leaders of WoW accused them of being mindless followers who did not even know why they were there. They were called Mean Girls who incorporated the beliefs of their Rabbinic Handlers. The behavior of relatively few raucous and inappropriate, individuals, who behaved terribly and in a manner that was against mainstream Halacha and Rabbinic dictum, was attributed to the whole group. Who is doing the Cyber-bullying here?

When police accounts indicated that few Reform and Conservative Jews visited the expanded area over the High Holiday season, while a number of Religious ones did. Some WoW supporters attributed this to Orthodox Hypocrisy and territorialism. Not to the fact that Traditional and Orthodox Jews view the entire Kotel as holy, particularly Robinson’s Arch which stands right outside where the Holy of Holies in the Temple is believed to have stood. Who is habitually bothering who?

One “truth” that WoW fails to acknowledge is that for the thousands of traditional and religious Jews, who pray daily at the Kotel, the status quo at the Kotel is the ultimate picture of pluralistic prayer and unity among Jews. To them, all Jews and people from around the globe, men and women are welcome to pray at the Kotel, at all times. Pictures and video taken over the High Holiday Season, on both the men and women’s sides of the Kotel illustrate this unity. They exhibit tens of thousands of people praying in unity, with no conflict, no judgment, with no one trying to be heard and seen above the rest. Though men and women prayed separated by a Mechitza, everyone prayed together as one. There were worshippers with baseball hats, streimels, velvet Yarmulkes, kipot srugot, sheitels, snoods, hats and uncovered heads, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, all praying together. During those hours, worshippers were able to put aside their petty differences to join as one.

In my opinion, WoWs battle at the Kotel is much more complicated than the bloggers and PR representatives would have us believe. This battle represents serious theological issues that cannot be solved without the utmost sensitivity and respect for the rights and beliefs on both sides. No battle is black and white and in this battle, the lines between perpetrator and victim are certainly blurred. Education, discussion and compromise are needed so an amicable, realistic compromise can be reached. Both sides have to chase peace. We have to rise above the hype and remember what is truly at stake.

About the Author
Sara Davis-Conway PhD is a mother of four and a licensed neuropsycholgist in Flushing, NY.
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