Anat, Don’t Ram a Bus into Israel’s Newfound Unity

by Leah Aharoni
The Los Angeles Jewish Journal

It’s not common for a society to undergo a mindset shift in the space of four months. Yet that’s exactly what happened in Israel this summer.

The Israel of October 2014 is not the same country we lived in just a few short months ago. Most of us didn’t do anything to make it happen. Yet the society around us shifted. The Israelis of today are kinder, more sensitive, more geared towards values than they have been in years.

In May, Israel was on the verge of a societal schism. But that was before the kidnapping and murder of the three teens – Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali. And before the war in Gaza. These successive shockwaves have not only traumatized the Israeli society, but pushed it to unprecedented solidarity. In my twenty years in Israel, I don’t remember a time when we all felt closer, differences notwithstanding.

The new-found unity is fragile. Even politicians and the media are tiptoeing around controversial issues, so as not to shatter what came together in months of blood, prayer, and tears.

This is why Women of the Wall’s current Bat Mitzva ad campaign on Jerusalem buses is so troubling. WoW leaders know that any girl can celebrate her Bat Mitzva and read the Torah at the Kotel. Over a year ago, the Israeli government set up the Ezrat Israel section at the Western Wall, which is open to egalitarian services.

The group itself has been praying undisturbed. With no media attention, Women of the Wall’s numbers have dwindled to a couple of dozen. The only restriction on WoW is their inability to bring in a Sefer Torah to the traditional plaza, though they are free to read the Torah at the Ezrat Israel section, just a few yards down the same exact wall.

The bus ad campaign was timed perfectly to coincide with Anat Hoffman’s fundraising trip to the US. After being absent from news coverage for close to a year, the group needed to revive its visibility and found no better way to do so than to raise a new controversy. But does that really justify pushing Israel back to a social rift? Is painting Israel as a divided society, even as it makes strides towards greater interconnectedness, the only way to promote an agenda?

The campaign is not only disingenuous; it is downright harmful. While the charedi community was unhappy with the establishment of Ezrat Israel and the Sharansky Plan, it chose not to oppose it publically. This act of responsibility was geared towards creating peace and preserving the sanctity of the Kotel. Clearly, Judaism’s holiest site is not the right place to wage battles.

The new campaign signals that WoW is not interested in compromise. Its agenda involves continuously pushing for new gains and undermining the quiet at the Kotel. Each new settlement is just a starting point for the next confrontation. By reviving the controversy, it is hoping to spark a new round of hostilities for PR and media consumption. Elementary school girls are meant to star to further its goals. It plays well on the evening news: “Young girl wants a Bat Mitzvah only to be squelched by the ominous ultra-Orthodox.”

Hoffman’s current US speaking tour strives to align her organization’s goals with Israel’s security interests. In truth, social cohesion is the greatest asset for all of Israel’s security and domestic concerns. Israelis have finally understood that any gains made by one demographic at the expense of the others are offset by cumulative damage to the country as a whole. Hence the collective effort to find the widest possible common denominator. WoW’s current campaign to divide the house of Israel against itself is antithetical to Israel’s security and social development.

Bat Mitzva bus ads would have been a terrific idea on the streets of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They could truly inspire some of the tens of thousands of American Jewish girls at risk of assimilation to participate in at least one religiously significant event in their lives.

As to Jerusalem, it’s time to get real. If Women of the Wall want to pray and read the Torah, they have where to do so. If a family wants to make a Bat Mitzvah, there is a whole section waiting to be used. Women of the Wall have had over a year to prove their ability to bring out the crowds that have a deep desire for egalitarian prayer. Clearly they have failed. During the holiday season, a million and a half Jews visited the Kotel. While the Kotel Plaza was full daily, the egalitarian section at Ezrat Israel stood almost empty. Jews are voting with their feet for the traditional plaza, Orthodox decorum and all.

The Israeli society and the Jewish Diaspora have bigger challenges ahead of them. We need to pull together and focus on those. We need to concentrate on what unites us, not what divides us.