Women of the Wall’s Kotel compromise isn’t a sellout, founder tells CJN columnist
Norma Joseph and I are now at odds over Women of the Wall’s (WOW) current dialogue with the government of Israel. We are sisters in a struggle of 26 years for women’s equality and freedom of religious expression in Judaism’s’ holiest site. Norma was one of the founding members of our group in 1988 in Jerusalem, and we always remember that we began our long march following in the footsteps of her Canadian feet.
Now, in her CJN column of Oct. 15, “On Compromising,” she accuses me of “selling out” and of negotiating away, mindlessly, the legal right of women to pray openly in the women’s section of the Western Wall. She eloquently describes the parameters of a reasonable compromise, only to point out that the current board of WOW misguidedly gave away everything and received nothing in return. Unfortunately, she has her facts wrong.
Women of the Wall was not “vindicated,” as she said, by the Supreme Court of Israel. The judges did not “pronounce in our favour.” To the contrary, the verdict was an order to the state to provide us with an alternative site so that we can be moved from the women’s section to another less controversial location. The government made an attempt to build us an alternate site and spent 4.8 million shekels ($1.4 million) on the project.
In her article, she emphasized that “we received another major decision in our favour from the district court in Jerusalem.” She said the court said “everything we seek is legal and in adherence to the custom of the place – minhag hamakom.” I really wish that all these legal victories she described were true.
Here is what the district court really said. Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that as long as the government has not given the rabbi in charge of the Wall the legal authority to declare what is local custom at there, he is not authorized to determine whether or not our prayer service is in accordance with the desired custom at the Wall. But this opened the door for the government to grant the rabbi that authority if two ministers simply sign a decree granting him to determine local custom. This signing can take five minutes.
The two ministers needed for this are the minister of justice, Tzipi Livni, and the minister of religious affairs, Naftali Bennett. Bennett was more than eager to grant the rabbi full and total authority. The only thing that stood in his way was the strong and resolute stance of Livni. The minister of justice refused to co-sign. We applaud her strength every day. However, based on political realities, we cannot expect her to be there for us indefinitely.
We believe that we are leading a historic revolution in the Jewish world. Building on what you started, Norma, we are leading the way to tolerance and pluralism. We are no longer a tiny group. We are at the epicentre of a powerful coalition that demands and expects radical change.
Our coalition is unique and rare, representing millions of Jews. We are joined by the leaders of the
North American and Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, the leader of the North American federations and Natan Sharansky, the one who originally envisioned the potential for a settlement. Across the table sits the prime minister of Israel and the cabinet secretary and an army of legal advisers. They represent the chief rabbis, the minister of religious affairs and the rabbi who runs the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
We are gradually moving toward an agreed solution we can all live with. WOW will not leave the women’s section until the last of our demands is implemented in full at the new site, which is on holy ground. All of our partners agreed to this important clause
We are not compromising and moving to “the back of the bus.” We are constructing a whole new bus. Norma, we do this as we stand on your shoulders. I invite you to take part in this historic opportunity that you helped create with your passion and your dedication.
“Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdsmen and thy herdsmen; for we are brethren” (Genesis 13:8). n
Anat Hoffman is the chair of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center.