When American Jewish leaders gather in Jerusalem for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly later this month, they’ll have the opportunity to hear from top Israeli political leaders on a variety of issues. They’ll also have the chance to witness the first public conversation between two groups of Israeli women at the center of a heated disagreement over what the future of the Western Wall should be.
On Monday, Nov. 4, Women of the Wall (WOW) will celebrate the beginning of a new Jewish month and its 25th anniversary by doing what it's been doing for most of that time: holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site, the remnant of the ancient temple in Jerusalem that is known in Hebrew simply as “the Kotel.”
They were the only women publicly involved in this debate – until, that is, the formation of Women For The Wall (W4W) in May 2013. A self-described “grassroots group” of Orthodox and Haredi women, W4W opposes any changes to the current restrictions that prohibit women from collectively praying together at the kotel – enjoining practices that are de rigeur in most non-Orthodox congregations, like women wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah.
Yet, over the past few months, efforts by a number of Israeli organizations to put together public conversations between representatives of both groups have been stymied – which makes the upcoming meeting on Nov. 11 between WOW Chair Anat Hoffman and W4W Director Ronit Peskin all the more noteworthy.
“There have been many invitations to them to join us in a discussion; they refuse to acknowledge our presence,” W4W’s Peskin said of WOW. “This is the first time they’ve consented to appear, and we think it’s wonderful. You can’t have a real discussion of an issue by only hearing one side of it.”
Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations, said her group welcomed the upcoming appearance at the GA, and that Hoffman was “honored to be sitting on a panel moderated by Jerry Silverman.”
WOW will “continue [its] cooperation with the Jewish Agency and the North American Federations,” Pruce said, adding that any comparison between the meetings at which WOW declined to appear with the GA is “apples and oranges.”
The groups that have tried to coax WOW into public discussions with W4W in the past are reasonably well-established. Gesher, a 40-year-old organization that works to bridge the religious-secular divide in Israel, tried to convene a conversation between women on both sides of the Kotel issue earlier this year, without success. Media Central, a non-profit, independent, media-liaison service that for the past seven years has worked to support foreign journalists in Jerusalem, managed to get representatives from WOW and W4W to appear -- but only by agreeing not to have them on stage at the same time.
“The fact that the Women of the Wall -- the supposedly more open-minded group -- refused to have anything to do with or any conversation or dialogue with Women for the Wall, I found amusing,” Aryeh Green, Media Central ‘s director, said. “And somewhat off-putting.”
In some ways, it’s not surprising JFNA was able to convene this public conversation when Israeli groups could not; the debate over the future of the Kotel has as much – perhaps more – to do with Jews outside of Israel as it does to do with Israeli Jews.
In the United States, the largest streams of Jewish observance – the Reform and Conservative movements – embrace women’s prayer and promote egalitarianism. As such, the fact that a rabbinic authority controls the type of prayer that can take place at the Kotel can make Israel feel particularly foreign to some American Jews. Indeed, anything resembling theocratic rule can be hard to explain to residents of a country where separation of church and state is sacrosanct, and WOW’s reception in the United States -- and the international media – has, accordingly, been largely positive.
By contrast, the case being made by W4W relies on another line of argument that Americans understand: adherence to tradition.
“We just wish they would respect the traditions,” Peskin said on Oct. 31, speaking to Journal while riding a bus through Jerusalem. A native of Cleveland, Peskin now lives in Cochav Yaakov, a religious settlement in the West Bank. “If they went to the Vatican they would respect the rules. If they went to Al-Aqsa [Mosque], they would respect the rules. Only the Kotel is a place where they don’t respect the rules. Without rules, a holy place becomes a free for all.”
Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, has made similar arguments as he tries to come up with a resolution to Kotel conundrum. Sharansky and other brokers recognize that the issue presents a potential obstacle to relations between Jews in Israel and in the diaspora; advocates on either side are working hard to make their case in the international media. (The fact that both the WOW and W4W websites load first in English seems telling.)
But WOW’s Pruce took pains to explain her group’s apparent reluctance to take part in earlier proposed public conversations. The briefing organized by Media Line did take place, Pruce noted. As for Gesher’s invitation, Pruce said it was presented to them as a “mediation,” but ultimately seemed more like a “media stunt.”
Speaking to the Journal on Oct. 31 via Skype, Pruce said Gesher had apologized to WOW; a representative from Gesher declined to comment, other than to say that the group hoped this “hot issue” would be handled “respectfully” at the GA.
Being treated with respect is not something that WOW members can take for granted; women have reported enduring all manner of abuse while praying at the Kotel. Pruce told the Journal that Hoffman’s decision to appear at the GA had everything to do with WOW’s confidence in the sponsoring organization.
“We, as feminists, do not participate in female mud-wrestling on a public stage,” Pruce told the Journal. “We respect [the JFNA] and trust that this forum will be nothing but the highest standards of professionalism and discourse.”