Is This Really Necessary? Discrimination at the Kotel

My wife and I returned from our brief trip to Israel this past Sunday morning, and in many significant and less significant ways, we had a wonderful trip. It was wonderful to be in Israel, to see family, to feel the pulse of Israel in real time… wonderful, as it invariably is.

In my last blog, I alluded to the ongoing unrest surrounding the Women of the Wall, and their valiant, longstanding efforts to pray with dignity at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the new lunar month). Recently, one of their long-time members, a Masorti Jew, was arrested during their monthly service, ostensibly for disturbing the peace by wearing a tallit.

And just a day or two ago, another member of the group was detained for questioning by police- a move without any legal context, and obviously designed to intimidate.

This is not a new story, but it becomes more disturbing with each passing episode of harassment and intimidation.

The question of whether or not the site itself- and Israel as a whole- belongs to all the people, or merely to a narrow, extreme element of the ultra-Orthodox world which arrogates unto itself the right to make rules for all others to follow, is not a small question, It goes to the very heart of the nature of Israel as a democracy, and how public policy on religious matters is decided.

Clearly, it is an area that is increasingly distressing to many of us who love Israel. When we protest, we are regarded as in some way lacking respect for the sanctity of the place itself. I have to wonder- is harassing women in a systematic and misogynist manner bringing honor to the Kotel?

The day before we left, my wife Robin and I went to the Kotel. To be perfectly honest, I never found it to be a deeply moving religious experience, but Robin always did, and it also gave me the chance to recite prayers there for some friends and congregants who are seriously ill.

What Robin noticed is that, very subtly, the plaza at the rear of the Kotel area, which had always been separated from the rest of the site by a wall, now had a thick screen on top of it, like the top of a mehitza in a separate-seating Orthodox synagogue.

The result- she can’t see the Kotel! It’s bad enough that the women’s area at the Wall itself is about a fifth of the size of the men’s area, and that there are women who just place themselves at the wall and DON’T MOVE, so that a woman visiting can’t even get to the Wall itself. But is it really necessary to make the Kotel almost invisible from the plaza area behind it?

The implication is clear. Many of the people who regularly congregate in that area, behind the barrier, are tourists, not necessarily Jewish, and the barrier is a “barbarians at the gate” statement.

That’s horrible enough, I would think. Not the most gracious way to treat “the other,” but then again, that’s never been a strength of the religious powers that be who control these sacred areas.

But for a Jewish woman like my wife, who understands and reveres the site, who can’t get near the Wall because those other women just don’t move, and who runs the risk of being arrested or harassed if she dares wear a tallit and pray there on Rosh Hodesh… to turn the plaza area into yet another place from which she is essentially excluded from participating (if she can’t see, she can’t participate)… How much more degrading can it get?

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.