Last week Israel’s cabinet agreed to have a mixed gender prayer area near the Western Wall plaza that would be administered by Israel’s government not the (ultra-Orthodox) foundation that administers the Western Wall .
Yay for plurality! Hoorah for equality!
This is widely seen by the Jewish community outside of Israel and many inside Israel as a good thing because it feels more inclusive and is more open to the non-Orthodox communities who don’t feel connected to the Orthodox vibe of the Western Wall open air plaza. Now they have their own place. It’s close to the plaza, but at the same time they are not in each other’s faces about how they choose to commune with God.
But hang on…
First of all, this space has existed for quite a while. It’s not new. What is new is the entity that would administer it and the fact that it would be expanded. Until now, it was just a tacitly agreed upon space for Reform, Conservative, and various other streams of Judaism to gather and pray as they wish (mostly by not separating the genders).
Women of the Wall have been advocating for plurality and equality and part of the organization agreed to the mixed-gender space. The members who don’t agree feel that they should be allowed to pray in the women’s section as they wish – they don’t really want a mixed gender space. The problem they’ve been facing is that the Orthodox do not agree that a woman can be allowed to put on tefillin, wear a prayer shawl, or read from the Torah. They have fought this battle in court (and won), but have been harassed by both men and women at the wall and arrested for disturbing the peace for gathering at the Western Wall to pray.
Then there are the archaeologists who say that the new construction would damage the archaeological evidence that exists there – specifically, evidence of stones from the wall that fell during the Roman conquest.
Like any other decision, it’s complicated and there are naturally positives and negatives. Decisions get made with compromise and everyone has to give a little.
But there’s more. And this is why this article is called “the simmering pot.”
The violence (aka the knife intifada) that began last year is based on a perception that Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. In October 2015, UNESCO voted on a draft proposal that tried to declare the “Western Wall an ‘integral part’ of the Al Aqsa mosque compound.” That was eventually dropped, but in November Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Israel was trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount by protecting “settlers” who were “violating” Muslim and Christian holy sites. (The “violation” being prayer. Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount and are arrested by Israeli police for doing so.) And now, with the vote on the mixed gender prayer site, the Waqf (the Jordanian authority administering the Al Haram al Sharif [Temple Mount]) has declared this vote Israel’s newest intention to change the status quo by “Judaicizing the holy site.” The “holy site” in this case being the Western Wall.
Let’s look back to September 2000. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount to show that all Israelis have a right to visit the site. And then we had the Second Intifada. (Yes, that is a wild oversimplification.)
A vote for a mixed gender prayer site seems like a small thing. But this is Israel. The Western Wall supports the Temple Mount compound where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand. Context and interpretation are everything. And so the pot simmers on.