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Sydney Shapiro

Mr. Phillips

AP English Language and Composition

13 December 2017

The Western Wall: “Separate and Unequal”

Looking up at the Western Wall for the first time was daunting; women and men

anxiously waited to pray like a crowd of people leaping to get the last piece of kugel at a Friday

night Sabbath dinner. Well, at least the women. Since 1967, the Western Wall, also known as the

Kotel, has been a point of contention throughout the Israeli government and society. After the

Kotel was re-gained from Jordan, the Israeli government gave the Rabbanut, the Rabbinic

authority, control over the Kotel (J. Solomon). Because the Rabbanut deemed the Kotel an ultra-

Orthodox synagogue, the space was unequally split between men and women, prohibiting the

women from performing prayer with sacred texts and objects such as the Torah, tallit, and

tefillin, a cruel practice not unlike depriving pastor from the Bible. After visiting the space

numerous times, Rabbi Jenny Solomon described these unjust divisions as "separate and

unequal." The segregation of men and women at the Kotel has constructed both a political and an

international strain throughout Israel's society and government.

Due to the amount of controversy encompassing the Kotel, several legal measures were

established in order to keep the outraged people contained. In 2000, Prime Minister Benjamin

Netanyahu, along with the Israeli government, established an egalitarian prayer section called

Ezrat Yisrael to the side of the main plaza. In agreement with Union for Reform Judaism's Rabbi

Rick Jacobs, several other Conservative and Reform Rabbis argue the space is not sufficient

(Abrams). This is especially unacceptable for women who are daily crammed into the space like

cattle in a chute. After entering the Ezrat Yisrael section with Torah scrolls in early November,

Rabbi Rick Jacobs and followers were threatened with pepper spray; their clothes were
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carelessly ripped as security guards forcibly removed the peaceful protesters, while other

worshippers shoved them aside (JTA). Although the Israeli government attempted to release

tension between the people of Israel by creating an egalitarian prayer section, the small, Ezrat

Yisrael area cannot contain the people's anger and disgust present.

Knowing the Ezrat Yisrael section was simply insufficient, the Israeli government

continued attempting to find a solution to the growing political tension at the Kotel. In January of

2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed a bill in which the Ezrat Yisrael section would be

expanded and upgraded so all visitors would be able to view the area and enter from the main,

gender-segregated north side of the Kotel. In addition, the Ezrat Yisrael section would receive a

new administrative team, consisting of representatives from the Conservative and Reform

denominations (Maltz). Unfortunately on June 25, 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended

the previously proposed bill to expand the Ezrat Yisrael section. Affecting this decision is the

fact Prime Minister Netanyahu has formally approved a house party bill, gifting the ultra-

Orthodoxy with an advantaged voice regarding conversation over Judaic matters in Israel

(Brownfeld). Not only was Prime Minister Netanyahu blinded to the opinions of the state of

Israel by obeying this house party bill, but he also continued to build tension admist Israel and its

citizens.

Due to the tainted, unexpected "freeze" on proposed improvements to the Ezrat Yisrael

prayer section, Prime Minister Netanyahu was bombarded with backlash from the Conservative

and Reform communities. In reaction to the "freeze,” Isaac Herzog the head of the Zionist

Union, stated "the suspension undermines the delicate fabric that unites the mosaic of the entire

Jewish people" (Pileggi, Wootliff). In other words, Prime Minister Netanyahu only considered

and listened to the ultra-Orthodox voices swaying his original proposal. Congruent to Herzog's

statement, CEO of the United Jewish Appeal Federation, Eric S. Goldstein characterized the

"freeze" on an all-inclusive Kotel as abandoning the foundation Israel was built on: a place for
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hope, freedom, inclusion, and above all else, a home for all Jewish people (Brownfeld). Not only

is there tension amongst the Conservative and Reform movements, but there is also within Prime

Minister Netanyahu's followers and supporters. Deputy Minister, Michael Oren, had an

influential voice in the original proposal. Oren believes the "freeze" ultimately disregards

concrete Jewish rituals and traditions (Pileggi and Wootliff). This backlash, due to Prime

Minister Netanyahu's termination of the originally proposed egalitarian prayer space, continues

to create an immense amount of pressure on the government, leading other influential voices to

speak out.

Women of the Wall, cleverly abbreviated "WOW," has been one of the prime

influential voices surrounding the Kotel controversy. Since 1988, WOW has served as a multi-

denominational organization, striving to earn equal rights at the Kotel women justly deserve

through social advocacy, education, and empowerment ("Women of the Wall"- Mission).

Despite their positive mission, the growing tension has led to negative reactions. In a routine

manner, WOW has Rosh Chodesh prayer services at the Kotel to celebrate "the head of the

month." Recently, during the beginning of the Hebrew month, Av, the soothing sounds of

prayers by members of the organization were met with the screeching sounds of high-pitched

whistles, blown by Haredi Jewish women (J. Solomon). In addition, Rabbi Jenny Solomon of the

Conservative, Beth Meyer Synagogue, experienced another first-hand act of horrific, jaw-

dropping violence: men carelessly throwing feces over the partition at women. With an educated

understanding of the political issues about the Kotel, and having visited the area over fifty times,

Rabbi Jenny Solomon expressed the Kotel as having an immense juxtaposition: "How could it be

that somebody would feel justified in throwing feces at the same site so holy that it must be

protected from their own understanding of Judaism?" (J. Solomon). With context, it can be

logically assumed the unimaginable acts of disgusting violence come from a place of tension

within the religious values of Jews across Israel. Unfortunately, these tensions on the society in
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Israel have traveled thousands of miles, across the Atlantic Ocean to negatively affect the

relationship between the Israeli and American governments and societies.

Because Prime Minister Netanyahu terminated his original proposal, Diaspora Jewry, or

the dispersion of Jews, is slowly dissolving, like salt in the water of Israel's most popular beach,

Beit Yannai. These breaking ties go beyond the barriers of the Kotel. For example, on the same

day as the "freeze," Prime Minister Netanyahu passed legislation deeming any conversions

taking place outside of the Israeli-Orthodox movement would not be recognized or considered as

official (Maltz). This advancing legislation prohibits those converting under Reform and

Conservative Rabbis from receiving automatic citizenship of Israel when requested. Jerusalem

Post's Yaakov Katz reported this day, June 25, 2017, as "another nail in the coffin of Israel's

failing relationship with Diaspora Jewry," while Jane Eisner, a part of the Jewish Daily Forward

Magazine compared Prime Minister Netanyahu's behavior to giving "the finger to a huge chunk

of American Jews" (Brownfeld). Although the tension mounding over Diaspora Jewry had

already reached its brink, on July 9, 2017, the tipping point occurred as news broke Israel has a

blacklist of mostly American rabbis from all denominations. Appointed by the Chief Rabbinate,

who controls issues regarding the Kotel, over 160 rabbis received letters noting that they are not

able to legally marry a "Jewish" American couple, and not have the same law-binding marriage

recognized in Israel (Meltz). Due to the outrage and tension seeping through the Kotel walls, this

strain has created a significant hole between Israel and America, leading Jewish organizations to

stand up.

Most recently, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) addressed these rising

tensions. In early November at the JFNA's General Assembly meeting in Los Angeles, President

and CEO of the organization, Jerry Silverman made Diaspora Jewry the highlight of this event.

Confirmed by Silverman in his opening remarks was the notion American Jews have much more

emotional ties with the State of Israel (Breakstone). Silverman's perspective is consistently true
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with others. For example, Beth Meyer Synagogue's Rabbi Jenny Solomon, described the Kotel as

the "Holy Grail to most American Jews" (J. Solomon). Contextualizing the Kotel with an

immensely meaningful label, supports and illustrates Silverman's assumption: American Jews

have much more invested in the controversy enclosing the Kotel than the people of Israel.

Because of the several arguments made for a changing Kotel, ultra-Orthodox leaders and

members in Israel have proclaimed their argument against altering the Kotel. The main argument

made by ultra-Orthodox leaders are rules are rules, and in order to keep the sacredness of the

holy site intact they must be followed. But, this is simply unrealistic; rules change all of the time.

For example, until recently, Conservative rabbis weren't allowed to marry gay and lesbian

couples; Jews weren't able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they were an organ donor; Jewish

women weren't able to get a divorce without permission from their husbands, but now all of

these things are possible due to the requests of a changing audience. According to a study done

by the Pew Research Center, over half of American Jews are Reform or Conservative, while

these same practices are only held among a minority in Israel (Eglash). Even though the Kotel

mirrors the ultra-Orthodox values held by the majority of Israeli Jews, shouldn't the Kotel reflect

the face of Judaism as a whole, and not just the ultra-Orthodox? In fact, Prime Minister

Netanyahu stated the Kotel "is a place that is supposed to unite Jewish people"(Eglash).

Because the tension regarding the Kotel is stretched out as far as possible, a solution

needs to be reached before the rubber band finally snaps. Due to Judaism's changing reality,

Prime Minister Netanyahu's previous proposition for an upgraded Ezrat Yisrael section should be

"unfrozen" to alleviate the strains targeted towards Israel's government and society. "We Jews

put up a long fight," says Rabbi Jenny Solomon, and "we won't stop until the controversy bends

towards justice" (J. Solomon). An adjustment in the views of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the

ultra-Orthodoxy needs to shift in order to maintain a civilized Jewish community.


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Works Cited

Abrams, Adam. “The Western Wall Prayer Controversy: Separating Fact from Fiction.” JNS.org,

31 July 2017. Web. 30 November 2017.

Breakstone, David. “Comment: Israel-Diaspora Rift Looms Large at General Assembly

Opening.” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com, 13 November 2017. Web. 6 December 2017.

Brownfeld, Allan C. "Israel rejects freedom for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism." Washington
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Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2017: p. 54+. General OneFile, Web. 29

November 2017.

Eglash, Ruth. “Scuffle at Jerusalem’s Western Wall Pits American Jews against Netanyahu.” The

Washington Post, WP Company, 17 November 2017 Web. 6 December 2017.

JTA. “Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Other Reform Leaders Pushed and Shoved by Western Wall

Security.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 16 November 2017. Web. 30 November 2017.

Maltz, Judy. “Divorcing the Diaspora: How Netanyahu Is Finally Writing off U.S. Jews.”

Haaretz.com, 23 November 2017. Web. 30 November 2017.

Solomon, Jenny. Personal interview. 31 November 2017

Wootliff, Tamar, and Raoul Pileggi Pileggi. “Liberman: Shelving Western Wall Plan a ‘Severe

Blow’ to Jewish Unity.” The Times of Israel, 25 June 2017. Web. 29 November 2017.

WOW. “Mission.” Women of the Wall, Web. December 6 2017.