Several bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies held at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall were recently defiled by haredi teenagers. They blew whistles to interfere with singing and praying, tore prayer books, spit and called the Jews “goys,” “Nazis” and “Christians.”
One of these incidents occurred just before Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, arrived in Israel. “Someone wrote me from my office, ‘Deborah, if this happened in another country, wouldn’t we call it anti-Semitism?’ ” she said in an interview with Haaretz.
Maybe a better question would be: If a group of Jews stood by the Kotel blowing whistles, spitting, tearing up prayer books and molesting worshippers, would they be considered anti-Semitic? I am confident the response to such behavior would be far different than the treatment of the non-Orthodox Jews.
Following the incidents, many asked, “Where were the police?” The Old City is one of the most heavily guarded and patrolled places in Israel, on constant alert for threats, yet they could not anticipate and prevent the harassment of non-Orthodox worshippers, especially after it happened the first time. Why didn’t they intervene when the assaults began? Why didn’t they arrest the perpetrators?
The father of one bar mitzvah wrote in The Times of Israel, “The police did little to nothing to stop the disturbance and sometimes violent attacks that occurred. The Israeli Police stood there as the haredi teens attacked Jews.” He wrote of being heartbroken. “I realized that not even in the State of Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people, am I allowed to pray freely and safely. My son, on his bar mitzvah, is told he is not Jewish.”
Who is responsible for allowing this perversion of Judaism?
One man. The rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Places: Shmuel Rabinovitch.
He is responsible for the rules governing the holy site and has done nothing to prevent the harassment of non-Orthodox worshippers. A week after the altercation Lipstadt referred to, Rabinovitch said: “The verbal and occasional physical violence that erupts among those coming to pray at the Western Wall, stemming from various extremist groups, desecrates G-d’s name, creates chasms between people, and harms the holiness of the site that unites the Jewish nation and world Jewry.” Intimating that the victims were equally to blame, he called on “all sides to remove disputes and demonstrations from this sacred site and preserve the Western Wall as a holy and unifying site in the spirit of Jewish heritage and tradition.”
How is it that a single Jew has the authority to tell any of the 15 million Jews how they are permitted to worship their God at the Kotel? Who elected him the pope of the Jews?
Believe it or not, the British were the ones who established the position during the mandate as a way to maintain order. Following the 1929 Arab riots, two committees of Jews were created to address the needs of the Jewish community. One of these appointed Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein to be present to supervise prayers and gatherings; arrange for donations from candle-lighting; and record everything that happened at the Western Wall.
Rabinovitch, appointed in 1995, is only the fourth person to hold the position. He succeeded Yehuda Gets, who served for 27 years. I believe he is the only public servant with a lifetime appointment. Even the chief rabbis have only 10-year terms.
After the reunification of Jerusalem, the Law on the Preservation of the Holy Places was adopted. It says nothing about putting a rabbi in charge; it gives the Minister of Religious Affairs, traditionally an Orthodox Jew, responsibility for ensuring members of different religions have freedom of access to their shrines. The law says the minister is supposed to consult with representatives of the faiths concerned, which means the rabbinate in the case of Judaism. The Rabbi of the Wall and Holy Places is recommended by Israel’s chief rabbis and employed by the Religious Services Ministry.
Rabinovitch determines what constitutes Sabbath desecration and inappropriate attire, and is responsible for preventing begging and interrupting prayer in the Western Wall Plaza. He seems to have no trouble with the first two responsibilities but does not prevent Orthodox schnorrers from accosting people at the Kotel or haredim interfering with the prayers of the non-Orthodox.
In 2009, he authorized the arrest of a female political activist praying with a tallit and holding a Sefer Torah. Rabinowitz described this as “an act of provocation that seeks to turn the Western Wall into disputed territory. … A prayer that causes contention and desecration of the sanctity of the Western Wall has no value. It is an act of protest.”
Women who have engaged in similar acts of devotion in recent years have been routinely harassed and prevented from holding services.
It is not only Jews who are subject to the rabbi’s rules. He expects Christian clergy to cover their crucifixes when visiting the Wall and clergy of other faiths to hide their symbols. Imagine the reaction if the pope instructed Jews to conceal their Stars of David when they tour the Vatican.
It is true that most Israelis, even the non-observant, are more traditional than most Diaspora Jews, so they have accepted the status quo. The prayer space at the Kotel is also predominantly used by the Orthodox. In recent years, with the growth, albeit minimal, of other streams of Judaism and groups like Women of the Wall, there has been a greater push for allowing egalitarian services. After lengthy negotiations, a compromise was reached, but its implementation has been repeatedly delayed. This has been an ongoing source of tension between Israel and the leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States. The Americans were especially disappointed the last government, which did not include religious parties, failed to act.
The one step Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has taken is to order the police to prevent anyone from putting a mechitza in the egalitarian prayer area. This was necessitated when someone placed a barrier between men and women, and the police refused to remove it. Even this minimal step drew the ire of a right-wing Knesset member who said it contravened halachah (Jewish law) and that Lapid was “defiling holy Jewish precepts.”
The synagogue-state issue was partly created by Israeli founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who believed compromises with the Orthodox community were essential to gain their support for establishing Israel. Hence, Israel has various laws pandering to them, such as bans on public transportation on Shabbat.
I am reminded of a quote I saw at the Museum of the Diaspora by a rabbi who said something like, “How can God be God if he can only be worshiped in one way?”
The Kotel does not belong to the Orthodox. It is holy to Jews of all persuasions. It is also located on public land. Israel is a democracy, not a theocracy, and the Western Wall plaza should be controlled by the government, not one unelected rabbi.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.