The Rabbinate State

Vatican City is the world’s smallest state with an area of roughly 110 acres and a population of about 1,000.  It is located within the city of Rome and governed by the Holy See. Its laws are mostly religious-only cases not covered by religion are subjected to Rome’s secular laws.

Sounds familiar?

This past Saturday night, Women of the Wall gathered for Selichot (Jewish penitential poems and prayer said in the period leading up to the High Holidays) at the women’s section of the Western Wall. We stood in a circle and prayed, a group of women singing softly, seeking a spiritual connection.

The atmosphere of peace and introspection was soon interrupted by a group of ultra-Orthodox girls, their faces covered with scarves, and their mouths spewing hate. They pushed their way into our prayer circle. They whistled, they cursed, they spat at our feet as we stood at the holiest site for Jews.  The police, fully aware of the mob surrounding and assaulting WOW stayed away. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation ushers waved us off. ‘The situation is complicated’, said their chief, when we asked for security assistance.

The Chief Rabbinate in Israel would have you believe that, similar to Vatican City, the Western Wall plazas are ex-territorial to the laws of the land. According to them, the Kotel is out of bounds to the Supreme Court, which has no authority on religious issues. This approach leans heavily on King’s Order in Council from 1924. The king being King George V in the early years of the British Mandate in “Palestine”.

It appears that despite the fact this law dates back to the British Mandate, modern-day Israeli police fully abide and support it. For months the police has excluded itself from owning up to its role and authority at the Western Wall.  The police so zealously enforce King’s Order in Council, that they abandon Women of the Wall worshipers to verbal and physical violence every single month.  When WOW petitioned the court demanding protection, the police stated that the responsibility for law, order and public safety is lies in the hands of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation. It must be so convenient not to get policemen’s hands dirty and let the Foundation’s ushers do the job. Perhaps we’re staring at the newest form of outsourcing.

Unlike the Pope, The Kotel rabbi is not a sovereign. He is employed by the Prime Minister’s Office and his 80-million-shekels yearly budget is provided by Israeli taxpayers. Despite being a function of the State and financially supported by it, the Kotel rabbi works tirelessly to make the Western Wall an independent entity within Israel and within city of Jerusalem. Just like the police, he ignores Supreme Court decisions when they don’t suit him. That’s why, despite the court’s decision which states that “The Wall rabbi is responsible for the prevention of searches on Women of the Wall beyond the usual security checks to all Kotel visitors,” body searches are regularly conducted, some as recently as just a few weeks ago.

The “Chief Rabbinate State” is being formed these days at the Western Wall with separate policing and separate rules, funded fully by Israeli taxpayers. The guards are not subject to the laws of the State and do not have our well-being in mind. On the contrary, some of them have aided our attackers. They run body searches illegally for hidden Torah scrolls (contrary to Judge Sobel’s decision that WOW is allowed to read from Torah at the Wall),  and abandon their duty to ensure our safety when the situation is “complex”.

It’s happening here. It’s happening now. And it will grow to apocalyptic proportions if we don’t stop it. If we as a society accept the rule of the Rabbinate and the sovereignty of the Kotel rabbi, if we allow our police to forfeit its authority and let others perform its duties, we will no longer have complexity. We will have catastrophe. We will bury the Jewish democracy in our lifetime.

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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