Today was destined to be an auspicious day, the confluence of three important events. It was International Women’s Day, which for more than a hundred years has celebrated the role – and the promise – of girls and women throughout the world. It was the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall, which has shown as a beacon of strength and determination and joy in Israel. It was Rosh Hodesh – the new moon, on which women’s prayers are considered especially auspicious – which meant that Women of the Wall would be celebrating this anniversary by praying at the Kotel. And not only was it Rosh Hodesh, it was Rosh Hodesh Adar, the month when we read the story of Queen Esther’s courage in saving the Jews of ancient Persia.
And it all went about as horribly wrong as I had feared – and expected – that it would.
The signs beforehand were ominous. Literally.
Flyers handed out throughout ultra-Orthodox communities in and around Jerusalem read like fake newspaper covers, calling essentially for holy war on the Women of the Wall. “The Reform have conquered the Kotel!” – the explosive headline read. “We must prevent it! All of us to the Kotel, Friday, 6:45 AM!”
So by the time members of Women of the Wall and the men who support them arrived at the Kotel – the holiest space in all of Judaism – the entire plaza already was crammed with Haredi men and boys and girls bussed in from so-called religious schools across the area.
They were not there to pray the prayers for the new month – but to prevent this group of women from doing so.
I was watching the live feed on Facebook in the middle of the night. Here’s what I saw:
Not only had the request for a sound system by Women of the Wall for the large group they expected been turned down by the Haredi rabbis in charge of the Western Wall Plaza – that sound system had instead been set up in the men’s section, where it was turned up full blast to drown out the women’s prayers.
Not only was there no security for the women, but the Jerusalem Police blamed them for inciting a riot by coming to the women’s section to pray – as they have done every month for three decades.
Not only were the women jostled and pushed and punched and scratched by these so-called religious girls who screamed at them and tugged at their prayer shawls and their tefillin – but the Men of the Women of the Wall were displaced and physically abused as well. Among them several of the famed paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967 – true national heroes being treated like garbage.
The scene was a calamity – and a dangerous one at that. The women trying to pray together were pushed apart and separated, so that they couldn’t even hear each other, much less pray a coherent service. They eventually had to be evacuated to Robinson’s Arch, a separate space for egalitarian worship, in order to hold their Torah service.
Let’s be clear about this. Women have the right to pray together, and to pray together at the Kotel – both by traditional Jewish law and by Israel civil law as upheld by the courts over and over again.
But the worst violence against them in at least five years was precipitated by an ultra-Orthdox patriarchy that cares nothing for either halakhah or civil law but only for amassing power. And it has been enabled and emboldened by an Israeli government – led for the last decade by Benjamin Netanyahu – that has a nasty co-dependent relationship with this Haredi patriarchy. It is a relationship based on power and patronage and male domination.
There are many people in Israel who would consider themselves chiloni – secular – and don’t care much about what happens to Women of the Wall. But they should. Because the travesty at the Kotel this morning is just one symptom of life in Israel that is increasingly erasing women from both religious and civil life.
In religious communities – and even outside of them – signs have appeared ordering women to walk on one side of the street and not the other, or to dress in more modest garb, or to avoid going anywhere near the neighborhood synagogue even when men are not at prayer.
In what are supposed to be secular government public events, women have been barred from speaking, or even appearing.
Posters – paid advertisements – for women running for public office have been effaced from the sides of public buses.
And just this week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against IKEA – the consummate example of modern secular consumerism – because their Israeli catalog included not one photo of a woman or a girl, but only of black-hatted, bearded religious men and their sons.
And even men who are supposed to be reasonable, open-minded allies are not always helpful. Netanyahu’s ever-more reactionary ruling coalition is being challenged by a new, more moderate Blue-and-White coalition, which says it will support the expansion and renovation of the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer area. But the coalition’s number-two, Yair Lapid, stepped in it big time last week when he was asked at a public event why there are so few women on the group’s candidate list for the upcoming elections. There are only nine women in the top 30 and 13 in the top 40.
First, Lapid gave the rather lame excuse that, yes, it’s regrettable, but the list was done in haste in last-minute negotiations. Then, according to the Times of Israel newspaper:
“After offering his answer, Lapid introduced the party’s second-highest female candidate on the list, Orna Barbivai, a retired army major-general who is in tenth place, to stand up and acknowledge the crowd. But she declined and Lapid responded with a smile and said: “We have a small number of women candidates and even they lack discipline.’”
I was told by an Israeli colleague – well, that’s just Israeli self-deprecating humor. But Lapid wasn’t making fun of himself. And frankly there’s no excuse for a coalition that purports to be centrist and broad-based but does not recruit candidates of all races and backgrounds, men and women alike, from the get-go. That it wouldn’t occur to them to do so shows just how far to the right Israel has moved. And it is deeply, deeply disturbing.
All of this comes at a time when we American Jews are being bombarded here at home with hardened and emboldened antisemitism from both the left and the right, and when we have suffered (close to home) a spike in hate crimes against us and our communities. But, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to justify support for Israel on the grounds that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, when it looks and acts increasingly like something very different.
For the nearly nine years that I have been your rabbi, I have been proud of the support our community has shown for Women of the Wall. My first year here, we did a photo shoot of women and girls and their families wearing tallitot and holding Torah scrolls. One year, we decorated oranges for our seder plates with Women of the Wall slogans. This year, our Confirmation students have been inspired by meeting via the internet with my Jerusalem-based colleague and friend Rabbi Susan Silverman. Susan is a longtime member of Women of the Wall who was arrested along with her then-17-ear-old daughter Hallel six years ago – for the simple act of wearing prayer shawls during worship at the Kotel.
It is so important that we continue to support Women of the Wall into the next decade of their advocacy for women and girls in all walks of life. They are an example of courage and determination that should inspire us all of us.
Every single month, they walk the gauntlet, knowing they will be cursed and spat on and pushed and shoved and knocked down – all because they want to pray in peace, and they want to pray for peace.
Every single month, they show us what an eishet chayil, a Woman of Valor, really looks like.
Every single month, they hold the ground against an ever-more powerful patriarchy that is determined to sideline and disempower women from both religious and civil life in a land that was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. And if they can push back, with the challenges they face, then so can we.
Every day ought to be International Women’s Day. Every day ought to bring us one step closer to equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunities – without fear of harassment, or threats of punishment for our impudence.
We were warned. We were given an explanation. Nevertheless, we persisted. Let that be said of all of us on this International Women’s Day, on this Rosh Hodesh, on this first day of the month of Adar, when a woman’s voice is heard and a woman’s courage is celebrated.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
© 2019 Audrey R. Korotkin