Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

By Allan C. Brownfeld

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.

This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of Special Interest Report, a quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.


Allan C. Brownfeld received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues. He also serves on the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.

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