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Lack of Egalitarian Prayer in Israel Is Described as “The Wall That’s Growing Between Us.”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2017

Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward (Jan. 27, 2017), laments the fact that  
the government of Israel has reneged on its promise to provide for  
egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, or Western Wall.  
She writes: “I was in Jerusalem for a week last month, and I never once went  
to the Kotel. This was unusual for me. On my prior stays in Israel, the  
ancient stones of the Western Wall were a magnet, drawing me in, stripping  
away my journalistic skepticism, leaving me feeling connected to the  
spiritual yearning that prompts so many of us to stuff notes in the crevices  
and prayers in the air. But this time, instead of being drawn to what is  
considered the most sacred site in Judaism, I felt repelled. The  
unwillingness of the Israeli government to follow through on its promise to  
expand the Kotel plaza to include a proper egalitarian prayer space left me  
resentful and alienated. If the Kotel didn’t want to welcome Jews like me  
well, then, I had better uses of my time in Jerusalem.”  
It is now a year since an agreement was reached between the government of  
Israel, the ultra-Orthodox authorities and American Jewish religious and  
communal leaders. Eisner notes that, “These 12 months were the opportunity  
for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prove how much he cared about the  
Diaspora, and allow Israel to shine as an example of religious pluralism in  
a region with precious little of it. And we have nothing.”  
When Eisner asked the prime minister why he hadn’t done anything about the  
Kotel agreement, she writes, “He essentially brushed off the question by  
blaming Israel’s byzantine political process for the delay. Worse, members  
of his party and others in his ruling coalition are pushing legisl¬ation  
that would bar women from wearing prayer shawls, reading from the Torah or  
blowing the shofar at the Western Wall — all standard religious practices  
among non-Orthodox Jews — punishable by a heavy fine or six months in jail.”  
Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, states that, “The court has  
always, since 1989, recognized our right to pray in our way. It always used  
strong compelling rhetoric to emphasize that our rights exist. However, the  
court usually goes wishy-washy with its orders to the authorities. They  
basically surrender to the police, who claim that in order to prevent  
violence, the victim’s rights must be limited.”  
Even if the court’s ruling prevails, writes Eisner, “… the Kotel still needs  
a separate egalitarian prayer space at the holy site. Many men and women —  
including the vast majority of American Jews — wish to pray together in a  
space not dominated by an increasingly strict and unreasonable rabbinical  
authority. And the Kotel is not just a synagogue; it’s a national shrine, a  
place for official ceremonies, a public statement of Jewish heritage. … The  
tine for pleading and exhortation may be over. It may be time for Jewish  
religious and communal leaders to follow the suggestion of Elazar Stern, a  
Knesset member from the centrist Yesh Atid party and a former major general  
in the IDF who … boldly urged a boycott of Israeli leaders.”  
Whenever he meets with Jewish leaders visiting Israel from abroad, Stern  
states, “I tell them they must insist that these issues be dealt with  
immediately. And until that happens, I say to them, ‘You need to stop  
inviting them as guests of honor to (AIPAC and Jewish Federation  
conferences). … Hold back for just two years. It won’t take longer than that  
for them to see that they need you even more than you need them.”  
Although Israel represents itself as a Western-style democracy, there is no  
separation of church and state. Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism,  
which represent the overwhelming majority of American Jews, do not have the  
right to perform weddings or conduct funerals. Their conversions are not  
recognized. Orthodox chief rabbis are government employees, paid with  
taxpayer funds. There is no civil marriage in Israel and Jews and non-Jews  
are not able to marry. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.