Before dawn on Friday morning, at which time fervent discussions about the state budget were still ongoing, Deputy Rabbi Gilad Kariv notified us that both he and Deputy Alon Tal had decided to grant the president’s personal request and, therefore, do not come to the Western Wall that day for a progressive prayer group service.
I do not envy you for having to make such a puzzling decision, I am well aware of the misgivings that must have involved. They acted as they should. However, the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that “there is a time to break down and a time to build up.”
This was also our focus in the past when we agreed to the so-called Western Wall compromise (according to which the non-Orthodox “mixed” prayer area for men and women was supposed to expand in the southern part of the Western Wall).
The dance is now on President Isaac Herzog’s court, as he was the one who asked the two deputies not to attend the ceremony in an effort to calm the waters at the holy site.
One can be sure that Herzog is fully aware of the importance of the role he has assumed. In my opinion, there is no one better than him for the task at hand. But just before a decision is made, let’s go back to what happened last Friday at the Western Wall.
Upon arriving at the Western Wall at 6:30 a.m., the first of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a huge ultra-Orthodox crowd had already filled the Western Wall Plaza and its various entrances. I have made it my custom to join Neshot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall, every Rosh Chodesh, the head of the Hebrew month, and have maintained it for the past decade.
Near Dung Gate, I ran into Yochi Rappaport, the energetic executive director of Women of the Wall, an Orthodox woman who is extremely successful and always on the go. Yochi handed me an empty coat of Torah scrolls, one of 74 similar coats that diaspora Jews had sent to commemorate Israel’s 74 years of independence.
We held the empty robes of the Torah in our hands and marched together, giving expression to the prohibition imposed by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, denying women who carried a Torah scroll entry to the Wall.
Not only does Rabbi Rabinowitz refuse to loan women even a scroll, he also prohibits them from bringing theirs to the Wall. The protesters approached the security checkpoint. At this point, the roar of the crowd could be clearly heard from the Western Wall Plaza. Thousands of young ultra-Orthodox were waiting for us loaded with hatred.
The security check was humiliating and invasive, as is always the case on Rosh Chodesh, but what followed was exceptional, even on the first day of the Hebrew month. The police were well prepared and behaved appropriately as they carried out their task of keeping the Women of the Wall and ultra-Orthodox youth away from each other. However, the police also made sure not to interfere with the work of the private guards hired by the rabbi of the Western Wall.
Officially, these guards are “assistants employed by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation.” De facto, these assistants are more reminiscent of the thugs who stand guard at the entrance of nightclubs. Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sacks, who are prominent figures on Women of the Wall, felt the iron grip of these assistants, literally. They were violently removed from the area after refusing to hand over the Torah scroll that they had brought with them. All they had wanted was to read it in the most sacred place for the Jewish people.
I came home quite hoarse and with a burning throat. I just couldn’t stay silent in the face of such injustice. I yelled at the guards, calling for them, over and over, to remove Lesley and Anat’s hands. The pre-military students, both from Israel and abroad, who had come with us, were horrified to see such atrocities. Some of them will carry those images with them for years to come.
In case you were wondering, legislators Kariv and Tal did not show up, but MP Itamar Ben-Gvir certainly did. If there is ever an opportunity for incitement, you know how to make the most of it. You should have seen the warm welcome Ben-Gvir received from the ultra-Orthodox youth. If you were a member of an ultra-Orthodox party in the Knesset, you would be far more concerned about Ben-Gvir than about the Women of the Wall.
So how do we proceed from here?
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who founded the Western Wall Equality Plaza eight years ago while serving as minister for Diaspora Affairs, is well aware of all the details of the compromise. I am sure that he is also convinced that its immediate implementation is paramount.
I had closely followed the negotiations that we conducted over a four-year period with Nathan Sheransky and Avichai Mandelblit, who was then the cabinet secretary. Bennett is also well aware of the fact that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged us to accept the compromise scheme. Although, with our consent, we were in fact giving up some of the fundamental principles of our fight for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall.
Back then, and only because we were convinced of Netanyahu’s sincerity, we had agreed to accept the southern section of the Wall, a section less known to the public, devoid of any splendor or majesty, a section of the Western Wall that would take years. to the brand as such. But we had nonetheless agreed for the sake of Jerusalem and for the sake of peace, although the definition of “separate but equal” does not conform to democratic values.
The task now before President Herzog is nothing less than a life mission: restore the Wall to its original glory and reinstate Jerusalem as the city of peace. There is no more Zionist act than this.
The task at hand may even become the defining moment of Herzog’s tenure. He knows how important the fight for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall is to us, and he also knows, almost better than anyone, to what extent this issue has undermined Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews.
I think the president is the right man for the job. I bless him because “he finds grace and good favor in the eyes of God and men.”
Dr. Yizhar Hess is Vice President of the World Zionist Organization and former Executive Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel.