Over the years, the confrontation escalated to the point that the Police started arresting the “Women of the Wall” as they came to be known. Every month they would come to pray and most of the times they would be carried away. While no specific law gives the Orthodox Rabbis at the wall exclusive control over it, the management of Holy sites in that powder keg known as Jerusalem is more often than not dictated by custom rather than law. This is true for Jewish as well as Muslim and Christian Holy sites. The only law applicable in all cases is that of freedom of worship and free access.
The confrontation between progressive and orthodox Jewish practices at the wall is in fact part of a wider confrontation between religious Jews and the majority of Israelis who define themselves as “Hiloni” (often imperfectly translated as Secular). The progressive streams, to some extent, are seeking support from the Hilonim (“Seculars”) to gain equal recognition as valid expressions of Jewish belief in Israeli society. As part of that struggle, any confrontation that plays at the decades old mutual dislike between ultra-orthodox and secular plays in their favor.
While the confrontation over who defines proper behavior at the wall is indeed part of that wider confrontation, it is also an issue of what kind of society Israel is. Israel prides itself of being a democratic open society, and as such is the source of pride for Jews all over the world. Yet the application of Orthodox rules not only at the wall but in other areas of public life makes many Jews (especially American Jews) feel that women are treated as second class citizens, thus feeding back into the conflict. But there could be another way to look at this...
For many centuries, the only Jewish presence in Jerusalem was Orthodox. After Israel's independence, the overwhelming majority of religious Jews in Israel were Orthodox and many of those who defined themselves as “Hilonim” leaned toward traditional practices. The Reform and Conservative Movements were very much absent from the social and political landscape of the young Jewish State when many of the initial compromises to allow coexistence between religion and the State were made. Add to this the fact that many Orthodox fervently supported the new State and establish religious Zionist parties which run for the Knesset and became political power-brokers in an Israeli society divided between “left” and “right”.
As time went by, American Jewish institutions began to “warm up” to Israel, but it wasn't until the sweeping victory of 1967 that significant numbers of American Jews embraced Zionism. It would still take a number of years for the Reform and Conservative Movements to establish a permanent presence in the Jewish State, and the Ultra-Orthodox saw these movements as upstarts and many refused to recognize Conservative and reform ordinations, denying these Rabbis their rabbinical status.
In their struggle to establish themselves on equal foot with the Orthodox streams, the Reform and Conservative movements tried, unsuccessfully, to attract the masses of Israeli Hilonim. They did attract some, but by and large for most Israelis, daily religious practice is marginal to their lives.
Over the years, the conflict played itself out in the form of the “Who is a Jew” issue, the Conversion Law, State subsidies, enforcement of civic obligations (like military service) on Yeshiva students, issues of civil status (marriages, burial, etc). The current confrontation at the Kotel is but the latest chapter in this ongoing struggle in which both sides have grown increasingly deaf to the other.
Let's see what's at stake today. Women's rights to pray at the Kotel in a way they find meaningful have been upheld by Israel's Supreme Court, and the Office of the Prime Minister entrusted the Chair of the Jewish Agency (Nathan Sharansky) to find a mutually acceptable compromise to ensure coexistence. Initially (and reluctantly), all sides accepted a compromise presented by Sharansky but almost immediately many on both sides rejected the compromise reigniting the conflict. From and Orthodox point of view what is at stake is the preservation of the Holiness of Judaism's central sanctuary. From the Progressive point of view what is at stake is the recognition of the equal standing of all Jews regardless of gender or religious affiliation. From both sides it is not a matter of logic, but a matter of passions – and when passions rule, violence can be around the corner.
Just to increase pressure and drive another point across, Tzipi Livni (herself a “Secular” Israeli) took the side of the Progressive Movements as part of her own personal vendetta against the religious parties. The result is an attempt to ban gender-segregated seatings on Israel's public transportation. I believe it is time to stop, breath deeply, and think.
For Hilonim and progressive Jews, gender-segregated seating are a holdover of the past – a past seen as deeply patriarchal in which women were second class citizens. For Orthodox Jews, gender segregated seatings are part of the tradition they hold as their own, and this applies to men as well as women. By establishing a full ban on segregated seatings, Israel would not be ensuring equal right for all, but it would be imposing one way of thinking on another. While I believe that women should not be forced to seat in a segregated section, I also believe in their right to do so if they wish. This segregation of genders is not discriminatory but grounded in religious conviction, and as such it should be respected. So how do we make everybody happy? We don't – Jewish consensus has been many times defined as “something nobody is happy about, but everybody can live with”.
A while ago, the Jerusalem Municipality proposed and implemented a separate bus line to serve the Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods; on those buses, gender segregation would be the norm. At the Wall, the Sharansky compromise called for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to the south to create a new section open to egalitarian prayer to be conducted according to the norms acceptable for the Progressive Movements. Both solutions, in my mind, are the kind of solutions which preserve the unity of the Jewish people while recognizing our diversity – without imposing the will of some over others. But as Jews, we are a passionate people.
Maybe it is time to go back and learn from History yet again. When the Assyrians descended on the land of our ancestors, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah took opposite sides and Israel fell. When the Babylonians approached Jerusalem, the leadership was divided between the pro-Babylonian and pro-Egyptian factions making Jerusalem the battleground between those two superpowers of the time. When Jerusalem was under Roman siege, we know from contemporary records that those inside the city spend more time and energy fighting each other than confronting the Romans.
Maybe the time has come for us to recognize that Judaism does not have one single face, but it represents a “Unity in Diversity” which has expressed itself in many ways through Jewish history; Ashkenazy and Sephardi, Rabbanites and Karaites, Zionists Assimilationist and Bundist. And in Israel today, right and left, secular and religious, Orthodox and Progressive – all in a mix that some people see as explosive and difficult. Me? I see it as the source of our strength and the fountain of our National creativity.