We were waiting for a "showdown", but all we got was a whimper. I woke up at four thirty in the morning, drove from Tel Aviv all the way to the Western Wall, waited for about an hour and then spent the next hour and a half watching. As I was standing there with two fellow travelers, Yair Ettinger of Haaretz and Gary Rosenblatt of The New York Jewish Week, Rosenblatt appropriately summed it all up: we are three journalists covering a no-story.
Of course, in the case of Women of the Wall and their monthly Rosh Chodesh minyan the no-story is the story. That there were so few Haredi protestors, that the police did a good job without having to invest much effort, that resistance to WOW seemed more routine and less driven by genuine anger, that the media was mostly bored – all this is the story. The story of people getting used to WOW's presence? Maybe – but it's too soon to reach such a conclusion with confidence. The story of Haredis disobeying their rabbis? – Yes, that's one story worth mentioning. And it's a double disobedience: the rabbis wanted thousands to appear, and not even many hundreds were there. And they wanted no single men to appear, just the more mature and less hot-headed married Haredis, but those who did show up were mostly young single men.
One can divide the protestors against Women of the Wall today – and in general– into five main groups:
- Young, restless, bored, Haredi men, looking for trouble.
- Giggling Seminary teens, looking at the restless men.
- Responsible adults, in very small number, attempting and failing to control the restless men.
- The mentally unstable. That's the group from which to get outrageous quotes.
- Native English speakers: most members of groups 1,2,3,4.
Yes, this is not exactly a Jew vs. Jew war – it's more like an American Jew vs. American Jew war. Both among Women of the Wall supporters and among supporters of Women for the Wall – the Orthodox answer to WOW – English is the predominant language. The battle over the Kotel did manage to get the attention of Israelis in recent months more than it did in the past, but make no mistake: it is still imported goods, echoing American battles, based on American vocabulary, lacking in Israeli no-nonsense pragmatism (it also reflects some of the virtues that Americans have more than Israelis).
I saw just a little anger today, and a lot of curiosity mixed with ignorance among the young Haredis. Behind the police barriers, they couldn't really see the women praying, something that they really wanted to see. How about this lady with Tefilin? They had never seen such a thing before, and some of them, those who were unable to see anything, were passing the time by having a heated debate over women putting Tefilin – is it halachicly forbidden to all women, or just to menstruating women, or to all women in public places (but allowed at home), or to all Reform and other unrighteous women. "Reform" is the title most common in the crowd. Reform is not a description of the stream to which WOW belong, it is a noun with which to describe "people we don't agree with". Thus, a brave and very Orthodox representative from Women for the Wall is also called "reform" by some hotheaded male youngsters.
There were actually two of them. And they were trying to remind the young men that the rabbis asked them not to come, not to shout, not to throw things, not to provoke Women of the Wall. "If something bad happens they win", Ronit Peskin was telling the men. "Reform!", some of them shouted back at her. It was hard for her to make her voice heard among the small group of cheering, sneering men. A police officer was pushing them back, half worried for her safety, half amused. "You are out of your senses", he told the men, "you are embarrassing yourself" – he actually used the slang word "Fadicha" – "she isn't against you, she is with you".
In fact, the intra-Haredi debates were the most interesting part of this long morning of relative quiet. The women were attempting to calm down the young men, telling them that they "should be listening to Rabbi Steinman", that they should go home and leave the battle for the married adults. Alas, the young rightly recognized, there were no such married adults on which to rely. It was either the young and the restless, or no protest at all.
Will next month be another story? It is possible (even if unwelcome, of course). The next two months are both ideal for the Haredi community – a community that failed to show enthusiasm for battle today - to go back to more active resistance: first Rosh Chodesh Av and its symbolic connection to the destruction of the temple, and then Rosh Chodesh Elul, marking the beginning of the month of atonement.