By Batya Kallus
Several months ago, Women of the Wall received an email inviting us to speak to a Reform synagogue in Barcelona. Although this is usually the bailiwick of Anat Hoffman our chairperson, due to her unavailability I was asked to go.
In contemplating the trip, I must admit that I was surprised that there was even a Jewish community in Barcelona, let alone a Reform one. My own long-held assumption about Spain was that the Jews suffered terror at the hands of the “Holy” Inquisition which resulted in their ethnic cleansing in 1492 and that Spain had been “Judenrein” since then.
At lunch the afternoon prior to my lecture, I met three women who were active local congregation members, including one woman who is a fluent Hebrew speaker with personal connections to Israel. Their congregation was one of four in Barcelona: two Reform and two Orthodox including the ubiquitous Chabad. Bet Shalom has no rabbi and operates more like a havurah than as a traditional synagogue, with shared communal and religious responsibilities including Kabbalat Shabbat and a common meal. Not only are there Jews in Spain, but they are building flourishing liberal communities.
I have spoken many times before groups about Women of the Wall. Usually, they want to know about the harassment we suffer, often about our court struggle, and sometimes about the halachic-religious justification for what we are doing. This audience asked different questions: How can Israel, our country, ostensibly Jewish and democratic, act in such an undemocratic way? Where is the rule of law? Why does the government give in to the demands of the Ultraorthodox? The government should be protecting you!
For forty years, a fascist government ruled Spain with the explicit support of the Catholic Church. Today, the country governs according to democratic principles for the benefit of its citizens. The Jews that I met that evening, living in a culturally and religiously Catholic country, were highly attuned to the complicity between State and Synagogue in supporting non-democratic behavior; and especially when it was Israel; with which they deeply identify. One woman confided to me that when Israel attacks Palestinians or arrests members of Women of the Wall for wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah, they lower their profile and try to stay out of the way of the ‘to-be-expected’ anti-Semitic responses to Israel’s behavior.
My conclusion from this extraordinary evening was that Women of the Wall matters not just to those of us here in Israel who seek to achieve the social and legal recognition of the right for women to pray, read Torah and wear tallitot at the Western Wall-Israel’s symbol of its national sovereignty, but also to the young, budding community of Jews in Spain who need Israel to be a strong democracy. Their security and personal safety is dependent on Israel enacting its democratic values; by ensuring equality for Israel’s citizens whether they are Arabs, Ethiopians, or as Jewish women praying at the Western Wall.
Batya Kallus is vice chairperson of Women of the Wall. She is the Israel advisor to the Fohs Foundation and program officer for the Moriah Fund.