Women of the Wall and the Religious Status Quo at the Western Wall/Batya Kallus

The calling card of Women of the Wall is our pluralism. We are religiously pluralistic, but also socially and politically

Batya Kallus

pluralistic. Our members include human rights lawyers and social change activists working for a more inclusive, democratic civil society, women who live in settlements and women who are active in fighting for women’s rights within the national religious community. You will find Knesset members from the Jewish Home party and Meretz advocating on behalf of women’s inclusion at the Western Wall. In the international arena, Women of the Wall also enjoys the support of a broad swath of the Jewish public reaching across the right-left divide. The miracle of this cross- cutting coalition is the shared recognition of the importance of religious freedom of expression for women.

This past week, leaders of the Women of the Wall, including Anat Hoffman and myself, were viciously attacked by some of our opponents who charged that we were actively involved in supporting or funding Israeli civil and human rights organizations which are, in their opinion, “Anti-Israeli”.  We believe the instigators behind this attack were a group of ultra-orthodox and national religious men and women who oppose WOW’s presence at the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh.

The true motivation underlying this attack is that only prayer conducted according to ultraorthodox custom is acceptable at the Western Wall.  Given our opponents’ rejection of pluralism, they struggle against the presence of Women of the Wall at the Kotel every month. While I reject their position, such political struggles are legitimate.

What is not legitimate is to attack the leadership of the Women of the Wall as disloyal because of our political and social associations.  By playing the anti-Israel card, our opponents hope to lessen public support and enthusiasm for the pluralistic vision of Judaism at the Kotel that our organization embodies through our inclusive prayer community.

What does this opposition to progress hope to achieve through this McCarthy-ite campaign against a staff member of committed foundation donors to the State of Israel, and the legitimate, state-recognized organizations they support? Obviously, they want to dampen support for Women of the Wall among its more right wing supporters. But will their underhanded campaign result in overturning the Sobell decision that recognizes the right of women to wear tallitot, sing out loud, and read from the Torah at the Kotel?  Will it lessen government commitment to enforce the Sobell decision and its unequivocal ruling that ultra-orthodox custom is not the exclusive practice permitted at the Western Wall? Will it halt the mounting rage felt by the Israeli public toward ultra-orthodox demands for gender exclusion not only at the Kotel, but also on public buses and post offices? Will it stop the government from enacting legislation that compels ultra-orthodox to serve in the army?

The bottom line is that those who work to demonize Women of the Wall are just another mouthpiece for haredi and right wing rabbis and leaders who are threatened by the extent to which Jewish pluralism has become a legitimate social force, affecting even a site so central to our historical and spiritual narrative as the Western Wall.  What they really want is to regain their political and social power and a monopoly on control of our holy places.

The Western Wall is, as Anat Hoffman so frequently says, “the tip of the trunk of the elephant” in the struggle for a pluralistic Jewish society.

Real changes are taking place within Israeli Jewish society. The government of Israel freely admits that today, the only form of Jewish practice recognized in state policy is orthodox, but they know this status quo is no longer sustainable.

This past week I endured deeply abusive written attacks in the media for my personal and professional commitments to building a democratic society based on principles of equality for all Israeli citizens and residents. These assaults questioned my motivations as a leader of Women of the Wall; stating that my underlying intentions are “anti-Israeli” and by implication, Women of the Wall’s struggle for pluralism was equally illegitimate. The people behind this campaign want to muddle the real issues through propagandistic slander tactics. Their charges are disingenuous and feel personally threatening.

My response: let’s talk about the real issue at hand; the challenge of pluralism to the orthodox status quo.

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