Provocation At the Wall

by Evelyn Gordon

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….

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…

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…

WOW insisted on continuing to pray among the Orthodox worshipers, rather than among egalitarians at Robinson’s Arch… 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.

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…

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.

Read the full article in Commentary Magazine.