An open letter to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren

An open letter to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren

As founders and members of the Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, and the International Committee for the Women of the Wall, we turn to you out of concern for Israel as well as our cause.

Those of us who knew you as a professor or community member in the past want to believe that you had no part in drafting the message issued by the embassy in response to the thousands of e-mails that we and our supporters sent following the arrest in November of Nofrat Frenkel for the “crime” of wearing a tallit at the Kotel, carrying a sefer Torah, and letting her voice be heard, and the subsequent fingerprinting and interrogation of Anat Hoffman for the same “crimes.”

The embassy’s response reflects a profound misunderstanding of what we seek. We do not hold egalitarian services. Our rights can be realized in the women’s section at the Kotel; this is what we have asked and continue to ask. Women praying together, wearing tallitot, and reading from a sefer Torah are completely halachic acts, as halachic authorities have confirmed time and again. To deny us this practice at the Kotel is not “compromise,” as the embassy response would have it. Where is the concession on the part of those who vilify, deny, silence, and banish us?

Unlike the state and the authorities in charge of the Kotel, we proposed a significant compromise from our ideal position, reducing our petition to the High Court of Justice to just 11 hours a year – a single hour each Rosh Chodesh, other than Rosh HaShanah. And still, we were denied. We begin our service each month for the last 21 years, at the rear of the women’s section, with those who wear tallitot forced to choose between disguising them, hiding them under coats, or forgoing them altogether, violating their prayer custom. Our prayer leader’s voice, muffled by the ruling, is barely audible. To chant the prescribed Torah passage for Rosh Chodesh from a sefer Torah, we must repair to Robinson’s Arch, interrupting our service and leaving behind members for whom the archeological site is inaccessible because they push strollers or need a wheelchair. It feels like exile.

Robinson’s Arch is an archeological site. It is open to prayer for those the administrators of the Kotel banish there only until 8 a.m., after which prayer is not permitted and an admission fee is charged. However powerful the sight of the massive stones of the area felled during the destruction of the Temple compound may be, they create an inappropriate space for public prayer. Yes, the massive stones of Robinson’s Arch are the same as those of the Kotel; they were all part of the same Temple complex destroyed in 70 C.E. Those at Robinson’s Arch, however, are rough; those at the Kotel, smooth, softened by centuries of Jewish hands caressing and kissing them, by their tears and notes. It is at the Kotel, the site of millennia of sacred Jewish memory and connection, that we seek to pray. Perhaps other areas of the Kotel precincts will, in time, become sanctified by spontaneous Jewish practice. This, however, cannot be accomplished by state fiat, much less through acts of denial and banishment. Perhaps those who cannot tolerate women’s group prayer should be directed elsewhere, including we would think, to prison when they disrupt public order and are violent.

Our accommodation to the restrictions imposed on us often shock the diaspora women who join us on long- and short-term visits to Israel. The recent arrest of Frenkel and interrogation and fingerprinting of Hoffman have drawn protests in Israel and from around the world.

With due respect to the government of Israel, the High Court of Justice, and the commissions to which our case was referred over the years, the denial of our rights at the Kotel and the recent acts of intimidation against us can only be seen as capitulation to arbitrarily narrow definitions of religious practice imposed by extremist religious threat and actual violence. Sadly, examples of religious extremism enacted at the Kotel and elsewhere abound and are increasing. The women’s section at the Kotel continues to shrink. Women’s needs are not accommodated in the tunnels to the north of the Kotel, at the spot opposite the Holy of Holies. At the back of the Kotel plaza, a new, men-only walkway has been constructed. The voices of women soldiers are now silenced at Israel Defense Forces events at the Wall.

Claims that the administrators of the Kotel are preserving the status quo, therefore, are specious and disingenuous. The question is not innovation at the Kotel, for this has been going on since it was reclaimed by the IDF in 1967, after which not only was full access restored, but celebrations allowed for the first time since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.: bar mitzvahs (not, however, bat mitzvahs); weddings; IDF ceremonies. The question therefore, is not innovation versus status quo, but how decisions about innovation are made: whether pluralism and a spirit of inclusion, mutual respect, understanding, and accommodation are the principles that drive innovation, or whether this space, sacred to the whole Jewish people, will continue to be treated as the preserve of a segment of Jews who exclude others and, with state sanction, impose their increasingly extreme religious custom by force and threat of banishment.

Sadly, as you well know, the Israeli political system does not lend itself to simple correction of injustice. Your personal intervention, however, would go a long way toward securing a resolution that stops the erosion of Israeli civil society by exclusionary, extremist elements and enabling women to pray as a group in the women’s section of the Kotel, with a prayer leader and song, wearing tallitot, and reading from a sefer Torah. Egalitarian prayer should be allowed in the Kotel plaza. Women’s voices should be allowed at IDF ceremonies.

Ever-expanding zones of extremist-religious exclusion and disenfranchisement are affecting more and more Israelis. Publicly funded buses are segregated by gender, with women forced to sit in the back. Sidewalks are being segregated similarly, and more such demands emanate. The precedents being set at the Kotel are not limited to that space.

As ample historical precedent shows, a state that goes down the road of capitulation to intimidation, from whatever quarter, about whatever cause, does so at its extreme peril. Whatever anyone thinks of the particulars of our quest, the danger to Israeli civil society in such capitulation is grave and immediate.

The denial of women’s freedom of religion tramples the values that the democratic State of Israel professes to uphold. The explicit promise in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of religious and gender equality, freedom, and respect, must not stop where the Western Wall plaza begins.

We expect, we demand, better of Israel. We expect no less from Israel than did its founders, than the soldiers who have given life and limb for its health and promise, including those who died to make Kotel once again accessible to all, even secular Israelis.

The Temple was destroyed, we are taught, by baseless hatred. The Wall, restored to all of us, needs to be reclaimed, rededicated, made a place where the Torah’s “ways of pleasantness” govern, and where coercion, intimidation, and violence, not women at prayer, are banished.

Let ahavat hinam begin now, and let it emanate from there.

למען ציון לא אחשה Le’ma’an tsiyon lo’ eheshe. For the sake of Zion, we will not be silent.

This letter was signed, in alphabetical order, by Dr. Susan Aranoff, Dr. Norma Baumel, Chaia Beckerman, Miriam Benson, Aliza Berger-Cooper, Danielle Bernstein, Cheryl Birkner Mack, Dr. Abby Caplan, Dr. Phyllis Chesler, Peggy Cidor, Rabbi Helene Ferris, Nofrat Frenkel, Dr. Bonna Devorah Haberman, Rivka Haut, Anat Hoffman, Rahel Jaskow, Dr. Norma Joseph, Batya Betsy Kallus, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Dr. Gail Labovitz, Dr. Shulamit S. Magnus, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, Stefanie Raker, Dr. Vanessa L. Ochs, Lesley Sachs, and Rabbi Marion Shulevitz.

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