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Perpetual #PenceFence

For Women of the Wall, the discrimination against female journalists at the Kotel plaza was just more of the same
Female reporters covering Mike Pence’s visit to the Western Wall on January 23, 2018. Tal Schneider is at left. (Michael Lipin/Twitter, via JTA)
Female reporters covering Mike Pence’s visit to the Western Wall on January 23, 2018. Tal Schneider is at left. (Michael Lipin/Twitter, via JTA)

While in Israel, Vice President Mike Pence made a speech at Knesset and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin. His last stop on this first visit to Israel was the Western Wall. As he prayed privately, women journalists covering his trip were separated from the men, forced to stand on plastic chairs in order to properly perform their jobs. This gender-based discrimination made waves first on social networks, earning the hashtag #PenceFence, and later in traditional global media from the Washington Post to the Guardian, from CNN to the BBC.

As I read some of the #PenceFence comments on Twitter, I realized the issues raised there are identical to the ones Women of the Wall have been dealing with for 29 years. The first is the Western Wall itself. VP Pence is a conservative evangelical Christian. Why was visiting the Wall so important to him? For the same reason it is important to all of us. It is our center, it is the heart of existence. For me, and I’m sure for many others who pray there, the Wall is a well of spirituality and emotion.

The second issue has to do with plastic chairs. This week, it was women journalists from all over the world who were pushed to the rear and forced to stand on plastic chairs in order to see over the backs of men. Those journalists, whose job it is to get as close to the event as possible be it with a camera lens, a video camera or a microphone, were pushed aside, discarded in the name of so called religion. Trying to keep steady on those iconic plastic chairs, the journalists joined a large group of women: mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters, who have to peer over the hefty seven-foot (2-meter) partition, in order to see a loved-one read from Torah at the men’s section, always removed from the main event.

The journalists also joined us, Women Of The Wall, who have been and still are regularly discriminated against: who can’t read from Torah, because there are no scrolls at the women’s section; who can’t pray in a group out loud because the rabbi of the Wall forbids it; who can’t light a Hanukkah candle, because the national menorah is placed at the men’s section, de facto eliminating women from that honor, and a rightful place at the public sphere.

The third issue has to do with systematic discrimination and oppression. The Americans among the women journalists protested to White House staff. The response from Pence’s spokesperson was: “Every effort was made to accommodate both female and male journalists while observing the rules in place at the Western Wall.” Seriously? Ask yourself who made up these rules, who benefits from them and who is discriminated through and by them. It is so effortless and easy for men to discriminate against women and then use lame excuses instead of challenging the practice of exclusion under the pretense of religion.

WOW Corral at the Western Wall (Hila Shiloni)

For us at Women of the Wall, the discrimination experienced by the journalists is on-going. Last Rosh Hodesh, WOW supporters were intentionally held back at security, watching men pass by them, breezing through the gate. When they finally made it to the security point, they were vigorously body searched, and a few were asked to remove their head cover. What exactly are the guards hoping to find under a head cover?

I was both angered when I heard about #PenceFence and glad that our message got through. It showed that women’s rights are trampled upon at the Western Wall and in Israel. It showed that where and when the right of women to freedom of worship is denied it will not be contained, the discrimination will reach every women. It showed that this injustice occurs without provocation, despite what people would like to think and that some people are willing to let that happen, as long as it doesn’t affect them, like the men journalists. It showed everything I’ve been saying for so long is true. It’s so upsetting to be right.

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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