In “Ungoverning the Western Wall,” professors Yuval Jobani and Nahshon Perez propose to privatize the Kotel. They look back with nostalgia at photos of Jews praying at the turn of the 20th century showing men and women praying side by side at the Western Wall, but they ignore the history that brought us to the present arrangements. One doesn’t need to be Edmund Burke to realize that simply undoing them in favor of doctrinaire notions of religion and state, or a wistful individuality, is impracticable.
As early as the 1920s, well before haredi politics became an influence on Israeli society, the increased influx of Jews to the Kotel necessitated the establishment of a mechitza (partition) to divide the sexes. The only objections to this Jewish institutionalization of the Kotel came from the mufti of Jerusalem and his followers. On Yom Kippur of 1928 British police, sympathetic to Arab complaints, forcibly removed the Jewish mechitza. Naturally, this move provoked protests from Jews throughout the world.
The Jewish population of Israel has since grown exponentially. Just think of pictures of the crowded Kotel today, and then try to imagine the “ungoverning” of the Kotel. How would it actually work, and would it lead to fewer conflicts—or more?
The issue goes beyond such (important) pragmatic questions to the very nature of a Jewish and democratic state. While Arabs and even some Jews—whether secular or haredi—might resent it, the State of Israel is the national representative of the Jewish people. It is a Jewish state, not a neutral, libertarian one. Doorways to government office buildings proudly display a mezuza, army food is universally kosher, and Israel virtually goes into a state-sanctioned shutdown on Yom Kippur.
Jobani and Perez imagine an “ungoverned” Western Wall in which “all matters of religious decision making at the site would lie with the individual rather than with the state.” But this is precisely what a Jewish state does not do. Just as soldiers in the IDF have no choice but to eat kosher food, the Jewish state makes decisions as to the nature of its consecrated sites: Jewish decisions. Or more precisely: Jewish and democratic ones.
The proportion of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel is small. This fact is undeniable, though the question of just how small is disputed. Still more to the point is the fact that Israeli Jews who are neither Orthodox, nor Reform, nor Conservative—most Jews—are happy with the Kotel as it is. As one secular family member told me at his son’s bar mitzvah, he wants a ceremony that is “authentically Jewish.”
As professors Jobani and Perez say of the term minhag hamakom (“local custom”), the concept of “authentically Jewish” may be a highly contested concept. But notwithstanding room for theoretical discussion, the social facts on the ground speak for themselves. Marking 30 years since the founding of Women of the Wall, its members planned a show of strength that was set to bring one thousand women to the Kotel. Ultimately, only 150 or so were reported to have showed up (my daughter counted significantly fewer). For the thousands of haredi high-school girls who showed up in response, the sight must have been somewhat pitiful.
What I see is the workings of a democracy. Aside from (predominantly American) bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies, the egalitarian prayer area by Robinson’s arch is largely empty of people, for three reasons. One is that most people coming to pray at the Kotel are Orthodox. The second is that even secular Israeli Jews tend to prefer the Orthodox atmosphere of the traditional Kotel. The third is that people prefer the Kotel they know. The first two reasons are sufficient cause for not meddling with the third. No, this is not neutral. But it is fair and just.
Two years ago, in an article arguing that the now-failed “Kotel compromise just isn’t good enough,” Gabriela Geselowitz wrote: “I want to participate in the shared experience of people who have come to the same spot that immediately reads as a symbol of our history and ongoing connection to God.” Fair enough. But Geselowitz (who was visiting from Brooklyn) wanted to do this on her terms: wearing tefillin, fiancé at her side. The authors of “Ungoverning the Western Wall” argue that the State of Israel should make this possible. But what to do? The great majority of Jews praying at the Kotel have conflicting needs. Given the demographics and the tradition, no state would be likely to dismantle a longstanding, functioning institution in favor of personal expression. We can hardly expect it of our Jewish and democratic one.
There is more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, but today instead of words we offer images.
Dickstein’s story is not a narrative of apostasy and rebellion; belief and doctrine play a minor role.
In his new book, Chaim Saiman points out that this “exclusive focus on the precise details of religious practice” left the Pharisees, the forebears of rabbinic Judaism, open to Jesus’s critique that they mistook “the legal trees for the spiritual forest.”
The poet Heinrich Heine imagined the merchant of Venice attending Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur, but I find him earlier in the day, at Mincha, and we are listening together to the story of another Jew among Gentiles, bitter at being compelled to show mercy.