In an interview with Haaretz shortly before finishing his term as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren said he had been devoting considerable effort to convincing Israeli leaders that the battle over the attempt by a women’s group to hold prayer services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall “could have strategic implications.” In Israel, Oren explained, the controversy over Women of the Wall “is perceived as a marginal question,” but “Americans see it as an issue of human rights and women’s status and freedom of worship.”
This divergence of views between Jews of the diaspora and Jews in Israel has a simple explanation. Americans see the struggle of Women of the Wall as a crucial battle for human rights and women’s status because they believe both are under threat in Israel. Israelis see the struggle as a marginal issue because they believe neither is under threat. The story of how that perceptual gulf has developed, and how a 25-year-old organization exploited it to catapult itself from relative obscurity to worldwide fame, is indeed a story with “strategic implications.” It’s the story of how Israelis opposed to their countrymen’s choices at the ballot box have sought to generate outside pressure to overturn those choices by creating a false narrative of an Israeli slide into fundamentalism and fascism.
Women of the Wall held its first monthly prayer service at the Wall in 1988. A year later, in response to what it termed “verbal and physical assaults” from Haredi worshipers, WOW petitioned the High Court of Justice to demand recognition of, and police protection for, its right to pray at the Wall in its own fashion—that is, with women wearing prayer shawls and reading the Torah aloud. Religious practice at the Wall is largely controlled by the Haredi-dominated rabbinate, which does not view such practices as legitimate. A 14-year legal battle ensued. The battle ended in 2003 with the court ruling that WOW did have a right to hold services at the Wall, but “such right was not without boundaries” (to quote the summary on WOW’s website). Therefore, its services should be held at Robinson’s Arch, a portion of the Wall adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza (the area where tourists gather). This was designed to avoid friction with the overwhelmingly Orthodox worshipers who pray at the Wall daily.
As time passed, WOW began disregarding that verdict with growing frequency and resumed praying in the plaza. This resulted in periodic arrests for violating the court’s ruling, most of which attracted relatively little attention. Nor was this terribly surprising: In both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, men and women prefer to pray together (albeit separated physically in Orthodox practice). Women-only services are a fringe phenomenon everywhere.
But last year, WOW suddenly became front-page news—first in Israeli dailies such as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, both of which are widely read abroad via the Internet, and then, as Oren noted in his interview, on the front page of the New York Times. What had changed was that WOW’s struggle now fit neatly into a narrative that began sweeping the Israeli media in mid-2011 and was swiftly picked up overseas: the growing “exclusion of women” from Israel’s public square.
For months, the Israeli media gave front-page headlines to incidents that seemed to back this narrative. A group of Orthodox IDF cadets walked out of an army event because it featured women vocalists; women on bus lines serving Haredi neighborhoods were told to sit at the back of the bus; a public bus company refused to run advertisements featuring pictures of women on Jerusalem buses for fear of Haredi vandalism. Various groups responded by organizing demonstrations against the exclusion of women. Lawmakers submitted bills to make such exclusion a criminal offense. As the sponsor of one such bill, the centrist parliamentarian Nachman Shai, argued, “The Knesset cannot close its eyes and ignore this key issue in Israel of 2012.” President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued public condemnations. “There is no room for the exclusion of any person in the State of Israel—especially not of half of the population,” Netanyahu said. And left-wing pundits insisted this was just one symptom of a broader problem: “Israel is not democratic, nor is it liberal,” as Haaretz columnist Rachel Neeman asserted.
The furor soon spread abroad. Numerous American Jewish groups condemned attempts “to segregate and discriminate against women in public spaces in Israel,” as Hadassah’s statement put it. The mainstream American press chimed in as well: In December 2011, Ruth Marcus wrote a column for the Washington Post titled “In Israel, Women’s Rights Come Under Siege.” A few days later, even then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got into the act, telling a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington that the exclusion of women from Israel’s public square reminded her of both fundamentalist Iran and the Jim Crow era of the American South.
Thus, by the summer of 2012, when police once again arrested WOW activists for violating the court’s ruling by holding their services at the main section of the Wall, both the Israeli and the American media were primed to view the arrests not as a marginal matter of a few women seeking to hold women-only services at a different section of the Wall from the one allotted them, but as yet another example of women’s exclusion from Israel’s public square. Female worshipers, it now seemed obvious, were being barred from a holy site that should be open to everyone because Israel was kowtowing to the demands of Haredi extremists. Consequently, the issue received extensive press coverage. And while WOW didn’t create this wave, it rode it expertly, staging deliberate provocations whenever the story seemed in danger of dying.
This was made possible to begin with by the thuggish behavior of Haredi extremists. Though most Haredi worshipers at the Wall ignored WOW’s services, a minority of extremists repeatedly attacked them. During WOW’s monthly service in May, for instance, Haredi rioters threw rocks and chairs at the women, which naturally provoked both massive media coverage and an outpouring of sympathy for WOW. Even people who disagreed with its cause found such behavior unconscionable.
Equally crucial was a Jerusalem police force whose instinct is always to prevent riots by appeasing potential rioters: Note, for instance, the police’s repeated decisions (most recently this Tisha B’Av) to bar Jews from the Temple Mount for fear of Muslim riots, despite repeated court rulings permitting such visits. Though the Jerusalem police argued it was the department’s duty to enforce the court’s decision, its enforcement was overzealous. Pictures of police hauling away WOW members for the “crime” of wearing prayer shawls and reading Torah at the Wall outraged both Americans and Israelis. As Robert Horenstein, a Jewish Federation official from Oregon, argued in the Jerusalem Post in October 2012, “The nation-state of the Jewish people cannot be a place where one of its citizens can be taken into custody for carrying a Torah.”
But beyond that, since most Americans weren’t familiar with the details of the court’s ruling, it was easy for WOW to obscure the police’s legal justification and claim that the force was simply kowtowing to Haredi demands, especially given the Haredim’s vocal (and physical) opposition to WOW’s services. That in turn played straight into the “exclusion of women” narrative—a connection WOW made explicitly. As its director, Leslie Sachs, said after one incident, “Today police succumbed to Haredi bullying and put us at the back of the bus again.” Thus, to Americans, it looked like official Israel, in the form of its police force, was colluding with a fundamentalist demand to remove women from the public square.
The organization also enjoyed one serendipitous piece of luck: In April 2013, the Jerusalem District Court asserted that police had misinterpreted the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, and that it hadn’t actually barred WOW from praying at the main section of the Wall. This was a claim WOW had never even made; its own website interprets the Supreme Court ruling the same way the police did: as saying that its right to pray at the Wall “was not without boundaries,” and therefore, it should hold its services at Robinson’s Arch. But since the state opted not to appeal the district court’s interpretation, it became binding, and thereafter, police did try to protect WOW’s monthly services.
Nevertheless, WOW also had no qualms about engaging in provocations to keep the pot boiling. The tactic is familiar to its longtime chairwoman, veteran activist Anat Hoffman. She is now executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s Israeli legal and advocacy organization. She also spent 14 years as a Jerusalem city councilwoman for the left-wing Meretz Party and has served on the boards of two prominent leftist organizations, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Women’s Network. But she has been involved in less mainstream activity as well: In 1988, for instance, she co-founded Women in Black, an organization whose protests against “the occupation” and against Israeli efforts to suppress Palestinian terror were considered radical at that time—at the height of the first intifada, years before the PLO recognized Israel.
WOW’s first deliberate provocation was obviously its decision to resume praying at the main Western Wall Plaza long before it received the district court’s approval to do so, at a time when it still believed that it was thereby violating the Supreme Court’s ruling. Although the group has loudly proclaimed the importance of honoring judicial decisions ever since the district court ruled in its favor, until then, it had ignored such decisions. No less provocative was its response to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s widely lauded (and long overdue) compromise proposal to resolve the issue: developing Robinson’s Arch into a co-equal section of the Western Wall Plaza that would be open round the clock for egalitarian prayer, just as the existing sections are for separate-sex prayer. Both in Israel and abroad, Sharansky’s proposal was generally welcomed. Union for Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs, for instance, told the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s annual conference in May that though “we all were hoping for the whole win,” Sharansky did “a very good job. What he did was he stretched every single one of us to a place where sometimes Jewish leaders, especially rabbinic leaders, don’t like to go. It’s a little place called compromise. And somehow he understood that whatever solution he would bring…had to make everybody a little bit uncomfortable, to move everybody off their place of comfort and righteous demand to a place where we could all be together.”
Women of the Wall, however, swiftly rejected the plan, thereby ensuring that the crisis would continue. “It’s a great plan but completely not relevant for us,” Sachs told Haaretz in April. “We will remain what we are, which is a women’s prayer group.” In short, WOW insisted on continuing to pray among the Orthodox worshipers, rather than among egalitarians at Robinson’s Arch.
Were WOW itself an Orthodox group, this might be understandable. But in fact, its leadership is heavily affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, and many of its senior staffers and board members either hold or have held positions in institutions or organizations affiliated with those movements. Thus while the group does have a few Orthodox members, most would be perfectly comfortable in an egalitarian setting.
But relocating away from the Haredi worshipers would defeat Hoffman’s main goal, as she herself defined it to the Jerusalem Post last December: “I want to see and be seen.” In short, her interest is not in holding women’s services at the Wall per se, but in doing so where they will be clearly visible to others who find them objectionable.
Indeed, WOW’s anti-Haredi agenda was clearly visible this past July, when Haredim finally managed a peaceful counter-demonstration. On the day of WOW’s planned monthly service, as many as 7,000 Haredi high-school girls arose at the crack of dawn to reach the Wall first. According to police, they completely filled the women’s section, leaving no room for WOW to pray near the Wall as usual—which was obviously the point. The organization and its supporters were furious. “We feel like we’ve been betrayed by the police today because where we’ve been made to pray today is not a place of prayer,” Sachs said. “It is a blatant violation of the district court ruling,” charged Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform Movement, who, backed by Israeli Conservative Movement leader Yitzhar Hess, argued that the government must ensure that WOW can pray at the Wall when it so pleases.
What neither WOW nor its supporters explained is this: What were the police supposed to have done with the young Haredi worshipers? Banned them from the Wall? Kicked them out when WOW arrived? The implication was clear. WOW’s demand for open access to the Wall applies only to itself; Haredi women are free to come en masse only when WOW doesn’t want the site.
WOW’s provocative behavior alienated even some Israelis who in principle have no problem with women’s prayer groups. Hillel Halkin, for instance, wrote an article in the Forward in June terming the organization “childish provocateurs” indulging in the “narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”
Nevertheless, this alone can’t explain why Israelis are so much less exercised about WOW than Americans are, since as a May poll showed, a plurality actually backs the group’s cause. The more important reason is that Israelis generally don’t buy the overarching narrative of women’s exclusion that WOW has come to symbolize overseas. Since Americans’ knowledge of Israel comes mainly from the media, they had no reason to question this narrative. But to Israelis, whose knowledge of their own country doesn’t come mainly from the media, it largely rings false.
Take, for instance, the first prominent incident in this narrative: the nine religious cadets who, in September 2011, walked out of a mandatory IDF seminar on the 2009 Gaza war because it ended with a musical performance that featured women vocalists. The army immediately responded by giving the cadets two choices: apologize and promise not to repeat the offense, or be expelled from officer training. Five apologized; four chose expulsion. Thus, far from being an example of women’s exclusion from the public square, this was an example of official Israel’s unwillingness to tolerate such exclusion: The IDF unequivocally showed it wouldn’t accept such behavior in its officer corps.
Or take the case of the public bus company that, in a craven capitulation to the demands of Haredi extremists, agreed to relegate women to the back of the bus on lines primarily serving Haredi neighborhoods. This was undeniably outrageous, and provoked an outcry from both official Israel and ordinary Israelis. But rather than exemplifying women’s growing exclusion from the public square, the controversy exemplified the willingness and ability of Israel’s own democratic mechanisms to rectify such abuses. Civil-society activists alerted the media, which reported it prominently to spur government action; the cabinet and Knesset took up the issue; petitions to the High Court of Justice elicited the obvious ruling that such segregation is illegal; the police and bus company were ordered to enforce this ruling; and civil-society activists rode the buses to monitor enforcement. And the system worked. As one activist reported in Haaretz in November 2011, she was able to ride in the front of the bus without being harassed.
But beyond that, Israelis recognize that many such incidents actually stem from a positive development: the growing integration of Haredim into the army and workforce. Take the latest “exclusion of women” episode to make media waves. In June, 300 Hebrew University faculty members signed a petition protesting a plan to launch single-sex B.A. programs for Haredi students. Though such programs already exist at some other Israeli colleges (as well as some top U.S. colleges, such as Smith and Wellesley), these faculty members termed the idea “shocking” and “contrary to every principle the university stands for.” Haaretz quickly followed with an editorial titled “Don’t lend a hand to segregation.” Fifteen years ago, when almost no Haredim went to college, this issue would never even have arisen. But now, thousands of Haredim seek college degrees every year, so the university wanted a piece of this growing market.
The flip side is a backlash by Haredi extremists who, as Israel Democracy Institute fellow Yair Sheleg put it, are fighting “a rearguard battle” against the integrationist trend. This backlash has fueled numerous violent protests in recent years (the ones targeting WOW have been mild by comparison), as well as efforts to erect even higher walls between Haredim and other Israelis (thus the sudden demand for sex-segregated public buses after decades during which Haredim had no problem with mixed seating). Haredi extremists’ unhappiness with these changes doesn’t justify their behavior, but neither does a “rearguard battle” against integration justify the same concern for Israel’s future that the media narrative of “growing extremism taking over society” would.
By their nature, moreover, integrationist frictions tend to be temporary, as experience has already proven. For instance, though most Haredim are willing to enter the army only if promised a male-only service environment, 60 percent of the graduates of the air force’s first Haredi program subsequently applied for officers’ school—knowing full well that this meant leaving their sex-segregated bubble. Similarly, Haredim who initially seek out single-sex workplaces often later accept promotions that require dealing with the opposite sex.
Finally, there is the fact that women are actually becoming increasingly prominent in every walk of life. For instance, Israel’s previous chief justice and its current and previous opposition leaders were all women. In the IDF, women have served as combat soldiers since 2000. Women have even made inroads into the Orthodox religious establishment. For instance, they now regularly argue cases before rabbinical courts, something they were barred from doing 20 years ago.
For all these reasons, most Israelis don’t buy the “exclusion of women” narrative. And without this narrative to lend significance to WOW’s campaign and make it a symbol of a grave and spreading societal problem, the organization goes back to being what it was for most of the last quarter century: a fringe movement eliciting only marginal interest, even among those who in principle support its cause.
Nevertheless, all this raises an obvious question. The narrative, after all, originated in Israel: Why (aside from selling more papers) would the Israeli media manufacture a crisis that didn’t exist? The answer is that decrying an imminent descent into fundamentalist darkness is the Israeli left’s standard response to extended stints out of power.
The “exclusion of women” narrative—which is just one element of a broader media campaign decrying Israel as a “racist,” “fascist,” “antidemocratic,” “apartheid” state—is eerily reminiscent of the left’s response to the upset victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud in the 1977 election after nearly 30 years of uninterrupted rule by parties of the left. One Haaretz columnist, for instance, termed that election “the beginning of the end of the State of Israel—at least, the State of Israel as we knew it.” For years afterward, comparisons of Israel to Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s were rife, as one of Israel’s leading law professors, Menachem Mautner, noted in his book Law and the Culture of Israel. The literary critic Dan Miron wrote in 1985: “From Jerusalem, the fire of civil war is liable to erupt, toward which we are advancing step by step….Here, in the city of the parliament and government, forces are gathering that will try to suppress or abolish Israeli democracy.” Amos Kenan’s 1984 novel The Road to Ein Harod envisioned a right-wing military coup producing a junta that would hunt down leftists and execute them without trial, expel Israeli Arabs, and bring the country to the brink of nuclear war. Benjamin Tammuz’s 1984 novel Jeremiah’s Inn envisioned Israel becoming a Haredi country whose secret services persecuted the few secular Jews who hadn’t managed to flee.
In reality, Begin didn’t turn Israel into a fascist, fundamentalist state; indeed, Haaretz columnists today routinely laud him as a quintessential democrat (though only as a precursor to claiming that Netanyahu isn’t). Freedom from religion, moreover, actually expanded during Likud’s years in power. In 1984, a Petah Tikva movie theater opening on Shabbat was an epic development; within a few years, places of entertainment opening on Shabbat had become routine.
Yet today, this “descent into darkness” campaign is repeating itself. It includes the “apartheid” motif, as in Haaretz’s widely discredited headline from October 2012, “Survey: Most Israeli Jews support apartheid regime in Israel,” and the accompanying front-page commentary entitled “Apartheid without shame or guilt.” (The paper was eventually forced to issue a retraction, since the poll actually found that most Israelis support a two-state solution precisely to avoid the risk of apartheid.)
There’s also the “fascist” label, which professors and educators prominently quoted in Haaretz have applied to everything from a new high-school program aimed at exposing Jewish teens to “the treasures of Jewish thought” to a requirement that kindergartens open the school week with the national anthem (hardly more threatening than the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in many American schools, especially since Arab schools were exempted). There’s the “anti-democratic” motif, as when the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the Knesset had crossed “a red line in suppressing freedom of expression” by passing legislation barring state-funded commemorations of the Nakba (i.e., state-funded ceremonies mourning Israel’s creation as a “catastrophe”), though private groups remained free to hold them.
There’s the “growing racism” motif, reiterated almost daily in Haaretz—though a respected academic who has been tracking racism for years, Sammy Smooha, released a study in June showing that Israeli Jews actually grew more tolerant of Arabs from 2003 to 2012. And finally, there’s the “exclusion of women” motif, for which WOW became the poster child.
All this isn’t just a fit of pique at being out of power. It has a purpose: As Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, himself a member of the left-wing elite, admitted in a July column, this elite is longing for some outside force “who will limit the powers of the elected political leadership we loathe,” because the left “has lost the ability to act within the parameters of democracy and absorb the principle of majority rule.” Haaretz’s former editor-in-chief, David Landau, put it far more bluntly in a 2007 meeting with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when he famously urged America to “rape” Israel into making further territorial concessions.
But generating diplomatic pressure on Israel starts with undermining Americans’ belief in Israel’s commitment to democratic values. Indeed, Shavit linked the two issues explicitly in his July interview with Oren quoted at the beginning of this article: “The Israel of the settlements, exclusion of women from the public sphere, and keeping the Women of the Wall away from the Western Wall isn’t distancing itself from the American left? We’re not making ourselves unpopular with the new and progressive America, including liberal Jews?”
During the years when Israel was negotiating with the Palestinians and ceding territory unilaterally, the left-wing media had no need for Women of the Wall, and consequently had no interest in it. But for the past few years, not only were there no negotiations or withdrawals, there wasn’t even any public pressure for them: Most Israelis attributed the lack of negotiations to Palestinian intransigence and thought unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank would simply create another Gaza-style rocket base.
Consequently, for the left, it became imperative to ratchet up international pressure by making Israel “unpopular with the new and progressive America, including liberal Jews.” In this campaign, Women of the Wall proved useful, hence its sudden rise to media stardom. And in that sense, WOW is indeed a symptom of a broader Israeli problem. But this problem isn’t the “exclusion of women.” Rather, it’s the left’s inability to reconcile itself to the Israeli electorate’s rejection of their chosen policies.