Shulamit S. Magnus
Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

New Depths of Cynicism About the Kotel

Photo by Ilana Rosansky
Photo by Ilana Rosansky
With the permission of Hannah Leah Hason
Women’s group prayer at the Kotel, February, 2019 Photo by Alden Solovy.

There is just no end to the cynicism, the lies, the manipulation, about the Kotel. It comes from so many sides, my math skills fail me.

Today’s news is of—Netanyahu, who brokered the Kotel deal until he reneged on it—shocked, anyone, really?—urging his supporters, via his twitter account, to turn out en masse at the Kotel to protest the Women of the Wall group’s Rosh Hodesh event. This, in support of Aryeh Deri’s call to his supporters to do the same. President Herzog appealed to MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv, among others, to stay away today, lest violence erupt.

Before we get totally mired—and drawn off– in this muck, here is the take of an historian and a founder of women’s tefilla at the Kotel.

Women’s group tefilla at the Kotel began in December, 1988– 33 years ago. It began with an initiative by two Orthodox women from North America, Rivka Haut, z”l, and Norma Joseph, in the context of the first international conference of feminist Jewish women, then meeting in Jerusalem. The tefilla was to be composed of women from any and all religious orientations and affiliations, and none. What united us was that we were Jewish women, who wished to pray with one another, at this sacred site, repository of Jewish memory, pain, and hope. We were sick of denominational infighting (the “who is a Jew” fight was then on, a sorry display of male turf battles), and wished to model something else, and be part of that ourselves.

We did it. I read Torah there, right up against the stones. We all managed to pray together, accommodating widely, radically different religious practice. Because, above all, we wished to respect and support one another. And be whole. What we shared– being Jewish women, all of us, however we live our lives, simultaneously outsiders and insiders in this tradition, and living those conflicts while seeking to be whole– utterly surpassed anything else.

An Israeli woman, Bonna Haberman, z”l, decided to continue the tefillot after the thousand or so women at the conference who were not Israeli returned home. She led the struggle for years. The group was attacked with stunning ferocity– I had lived in some tough neighborhoods in New York and never experienced anything like it– and, in 1989, we sued the police, the Ministry of Religion, and the State, for failing to protect us and for failing to enforce our rights as Jews to equal access and equal religious expression at the Kotel.

Whose status is not “synagogue,” but “national holy site.” National. Not the possession of any group or sector but the heritage of us all, including secular Jews, who once related to the place with reverence, secular soldiers along with religious ones endangering and losing their lives in 1967 to return that place to Jewish control. So that Jewish access to it would never again be limited, as it was under the Byzantines, Ottomans, and British, or barred altogether, as it was under the Jordanians. A site at which Diaspora Jews deserve accommodation no less or differently than any other Jew.

After many years of delays and maneuvers, during which the State we support with our taxes and Diaspora Jewry supports with many forms of vital connection, fought us and used defamatory language against Jewish women that in any other context, would rightly be termed Jew-hatred, the Supreme Court ruled, in 2003, that– of course–  everything we sought to do was legal. The Court is very political and felt, and feels to this day, that this issue is a hot political potato from which it wants nothing more than to escape. It sought and seeks still, to escape this issue by hoping it will go away, literally, to Robinson’s Arch, a unique archaeological site at the southern extension of the Western Wall.

We maintained our right to pray in our custom at the Kotel. In 2013, we won another pivotal Court ruling that said that, after what was then 25 years of regular tefilla in our custom at the Kotel, it was “minhag hamakom” there, and the police were no longer to execute orders of the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel to have us detained and taken away for donning talitot there. Yes, I was taken to and detainedin the Kishle police station for davenning with a talit. In Israel. If this had happened anywhere else in the world, how would our Jewish State have reacted? Ah, but this was politics and women can be shafted. It was only our resolute legal action that got our rights afirmed.

To our shock, behind the backs of the founders and many of the loyal participants of women’s group tefilla at the Kotel, the Kotel deal was hatched. In this deal, the hard won rights of women were to be traded, used as currency, to pay for the long-sought goal of the Reform and Conservative movements to get State recognition and funding. To some in those movements, the Kotel was never a priority; on the contrary, it was the symbol of something past and dead. But in this context, ever, ever so useful for other purposes. Suddenly, these new Kotel stalwarts were born. Lacking their own currency to even get a seat at the table to make pivotal denominational demands, they used ours. Us.

Under the Kotel deal, the entire “holy basin” area would be denominationalized– balkanized into a Kotel which would be made, officially, a haredi synagogue, and Robinson’s Arch, which would be made an officially recognized and State-funded site of egalitarian prayer. Robinson’s Arch has been functioning as such for decades but now it would be under the official control of the Reform and Conservative movements, with State funding.

And women?

Used, and chucked. Women’s group tefilla at the Kotel would be made a criminal offense, punishable by fine and imprisonment. That is the “progressive,” “pluralist,” Kotel deal they don’t tell you about and don’t want you to know about.

After Netanyahu reneged on the Kotel deal he had negotiated– a deal the entirel haredi establishment knew and signed on to– the Women of the Wall organization said that it would continue its prayer services at the Kotel– until and unless the Kotel deal was implemented. Using that tefilla, in other words, as leverage for denominational aspirations– and to turn the whole Kotel area into a Jewish version of the Holy Sepulcher, at which various Christian sects fight about every inch and minute of time. About as far from what this was founded for as is imaginable.

Other women, myself among them, continue to pray together, at the Kotel, with talit, tefillin, and with torah reading. To no incident.

Many sides have been using this issue for political gain, to prove their creds, gain leverage. It’s also phenomenally good for fund raising, on all sides, as I have it from one of the main “horse’s” mouth in all this.

Now, we get the latest chapter in what has become a sordid affair.

What began with Jewish women wanting to respect, honor, and accommodate one another, in prayer, in the site holy to all Jews, creating the one setting in which diverse Jews PRAYED together!–now moves to yet another phase of cynical manipulation.

To all those who courted Netanyahu, whom he then used and chucked, and who now finds new ways to demonstrate his perfidy, you are the company you keep. Don’t come crying  now.

For another, better way to go, see this:  https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/klal-yisrael-at-the-kotel-a-national-vision-on-this-tisha-bav/

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and read Torah there in the first such service, in 1988. She is first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel, using scrolls held there, and she opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, and the Jerusalem Post. She is currently at work on a book of scholarly advocacy about the history of agunot and how to free gunot and end iggun.
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