Thursday, September 29th | 5 Tishri 5783

February 4, 2016 6:38 am

Separate But Equal? Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall Is Still Religious Discrimination

avatar by Gidon Ben-Zvi

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Moshe Milner/the Israeli government press office via

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Moshe Milner/the Israeli government press office via

A plan to create a special prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold gender-mixed services was approved by the Israeli government on Sunday, January 31.

While being hailed as a historic landmark for Jewish pluralism and the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, the Cabinet’s decision does little more than legitimize denomination-based segregation. The Western Wall should be open to all Jews who want to pray there.

Leave it to the leaders of a Jewish democracy to support discrimination against the Jewish majority. A sad but constant historical truism is that governments have tended to pass and enforce discriminatory legislation against minority segments of the population.

Israel, however, is an exception to this historic pattern of tyranny of the majority.

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Jewish Israelis, who comprise more than 80 percent of the population, often live within a legal framework that discriminates in favor of one Jewish stream at the expense of all other denominations, as well as against Jews who are altogether secular.

For example, Sunday’s decision codifies the same prejudicial thinking that guides the ‘Mehadrin’ bus lines — in which the gender segregation rules of some ultra-Orthodox Jews are applied to public transportation.

Israeli women have a plethora of equally valid and accessible transportation options to choose from. Yet the very existence of separate bus lines where men sit in the front and women in back is anathema to the pluralistic values on which Israel was founded and on which the country has thrived.

From its inception, the Jewish State has been governed by the rule of law as drafted by a democratically-elected legislature that guarantees non-Jewish Israeli citizens the right to practice religion without external, state-sanctioned, coercion.

Yet while Israel has no state religion, the country’s Chief Rabbinate imposes its religious interpretations ‎upon any Israeli citizen who dares identify as a Jew. If you happen to be a Jew living in Israel you must contend with constant intrusions into your personal manner of religious observance.

The Rabbinate has jurisdiction over everything from Jewish marriages to Jewish divorce, Jewish burials, conversions, Kosher certification, Jewish immigration to Israel, and of course the supervision of Jewish holy sites.

And the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t limit its scope of operations to internal Israeli affairs. In December 2015, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau lambasted a visit by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to a Jewish school in the United States that is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

Lau called the visit by Bennett, “unacceptable…since it granted recognition to those who have distanced themselves” from the People of Israel.

Bennet also happens to be Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister.

At its core, the religious intervention in secular society is fueled by a nagging self-doubt that Jewish Israel cannot possibly remain Jewish if left to its own devices.

Yet any system of beliefs that relies on threats instead of persuasion is intellectually suspect and morally bankrupt, only surviving by resorting to strong-arm political tactics.

How strange that in the only Jewish country on earth, debate is stifled. As far back as the Mishna, through the 2,000-year Jewish Exile, there were lively discussions regarding the interpretation of Halacha between the more liberal Beit Hillel and more stringent Beit Shamai schools.

As such, the Israeli government’s decision to validate the Haredi-controlled Rabbinate’s discriminatory policies is an affront to Jewish tradition, which upholds the centrality of robust discourse within the Jewish community.

The Cabinet’s decision was a huge mistake that stifles religious freedom. Don’t be fooled by claims that it does the opposite.

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