The Western Wall is as political as the Apartheid Wall

Israel/Palestine
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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Netanyahu at Western Wall
Netanyahu at Western Wall

Just when my reflections on religion and the holiday season were becoming too pessimistic, a more positive development is in the offing.  At least it’s touted as such.

The development involves the Western Wall in Jerusalem where many Jews come to pray.  As part of the ancient Temple compound, it’s one of the holiest sites in Judaism.  Religious Jews in Israel and around the world flock there. 

The Western Wall is a tourist site as well.  You don’t have to be from a particular religion or any religion at all to have it included on your Israel tourist itinerary.

Please don’t confuse the Western Wall with the Apartheid Wall.   On the face of it, they’re two completely different realities. When you dig deeper you see a connection.

 The Western Wall came into Jewish hands in the 1967 war when Israel conquered Jerusalem.  Immediately after the war, the Moroccan Quarter, over 800 years in existence, was cleared.  In more colorful language, the area was Judaized and cleansed of ‘foreign’ influences. The cleansed, now empty area, is where Jews approach the Wall to pray.

The connection between the Western Wall and the Apartheid Wall isn’t obvious.  The Western wall is religious, the Apartheid Wall political.  However, the main connection is Jewish domination of what was once Palestinian geography.  The separation is artificial.

The ‘advance’ I hinted at?  For years Jewish women have been protesting gender exclusion at the Western Wall.  Access to the Wall is guarded by the ultra-Orthodox who privilege men.  Though there has been some reform in the last few years, women have been – correctly – displeased with the progress toward equality at this important religious site. 

Today women pray at the Wall in their own special section.  However, they are prohibited from carrying a Torah or wearing prayer shawls.Separation and restrictions remain.

So who becomes the gender equality Western Wall prayer champion?  According to the New York Times, it is none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  He, in turn, has enlisted another right-wing politician, Natan Sharansky, to facilitate movement toward more gender equality. 

Netanyahu’s advisor explains the Prime Minister’s initiative:  ‘He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry.  This is an important component of Israel’s strength.’  In response to a reporter’s question about the possibility of full equality for women at the Wall, Sharansky responds:  ‘I imagine very easily as situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the state of Israel in way he or she wants, without undermining the other.’

At least, Netanyahu and Sharansky tell it straight up – the Western Wall is as political as the Apartheid Wall. 

Should the major complaint of women who want religious equality involve prayer at a site that has been conquered and cleansed?   Should Jews be united across gender lines in prayer at the Western Wall as it is now constituted and guarded?

For Palestinians the Western Wall is a symbol of oppression.  This should also be true for Jews of Conscience.

The Western Wall, like Christmas trees, is not innocuous.  Prayer there is not innocent. 

Perhaps women should abandon prayer at the Western Wall and pray, instead, at the Apartheid Wall.  Since the ultra-Orthodox don’t pray there, women would have immediate full equality.

If the women’s prayers remained the same at the Apartheid Wall as they would have been at the Western Wall, then at least they’d be honest.  In essence they would be praying that the Apartheid Wall be Israel’s salvation. 

If the women realized the politics of the various Walls in Israel/Palestine, they could change their prayers at the Apartheid Wall to reflect that connection.  They could pray for justice and equality for Jews and Palestinians of both genders, a political equality which would resonate on the religious level as well. 

With Netanyahu and Sharansky as the guardians of gender equality – for unity and solidarity with the state of Israel – woman can’t get very far, can they?

Holiday seasons get stranger and stranger as the intersection of politics and religion is understood.  There isn’t a prayer in the world that doesn’t carry a political message. 

When your salvation is a disaster for the Other, it cannot be your salvation.

Few places in the world make the salvation/disaster for the Other dichotomy clearer than Jerusalem.

Once you understand the connection between the Western Wall and the Apartheid Wall there’s no going back. 

No matter the prayers of women and men, domination is domination.  Even when gender equality is the deflection of the day.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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