Separate but Equal? Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall Makes Israel Similar to Iran

February 7, 2016 by Gidon Ben-Zvi
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A plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold gender-mixed services was approved by the Israeli government at the end of last month…writes Gidon Ben-Zvi.

Gidon Ben-Zvi

Gidon Ben-Zvi

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 legitimise denomination-based segregation.

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.

Jewish Israelis, who comprise over 80% of the population, must 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.

Sunday’s decision codifies the same prejudicial thinking that guides the ‘Mehadrin’ bus lines, in which gender segregation rules as observed by 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, reason being that there’s nothing personal about it.

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.

With the cabinet’s approval, Israeli society took one step towards the empires of darkness in Tehran and Riyadh and one step away from its own glorious founding creed.


Gidon Ben-Zvi is an accomplished writer who left behind Hollywood starlight for Jerusalem stone. After serving in an IDF infantry unit for two-and-a-half years, Gidon returned to the United States before settling in Israel, where he aspires to raise a brood of children who speak English fluently – with an Israeli accent. Ben-Zvi contributes to The Algemeiner, The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post , Truth Revolt, American Thinker and United with Israel.


7 Responses to “Separate but Equal? Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall Makes Israel Similar to Iran”
  1. Rabbi Chaim Ingram says:

    In answer to Liat’s demographic question

    UK – 70% Orthodox to 30% non-Orthodox

    Australia – 70% synaoguge membership Orthodox. (This may not include Sephardi which has never adopted non-orthodox forms)

    Canada – only 6% Reform

    South Africa – no conservative, almost no reform to speak of

    Russia and other former Soviet countries – Orthodoxy overwhelming presence.

    South America – dominated by Orthodox
    Buenos Airies – 50 Orthodox synagogues, 5 conservative, 1 reform
    Utuguay – 14 Orthodox synagogues, 1 conservative, no reform

    Institutional Orthodoxy on the rise in virtually every major city in the world.

    Sources: Wikipedia

  2. Rabbi Chaim Ingram says:

    Ron Burdo is of course quite correct. He has restated what I already said but in a far clearer way than I did.

    Dear Liat, if you believe that equating democratic Israel with despotic Iran is not hyperbole or vilification then we are sadly separated by a common language!

    Indeed this is what is at issue also in our respective definitions of Judaism. My definition is the historic one – a creed affirming belief in the one, eternal G-D who reveealed Himself to an entire nation at a set point in history and prescribed a Torah which is eternally binding. . Yours is that Judaism is whatever varying communities of Jews choose to believe or commit to in every given generation. That, like it or not, is a ‘redefinition’ of Judaism that has only held sway since the mid-nineteeenth century.

    I did not say that all movements that came from the Diaspora are an “invention”. Hassidism stayed true to the two credal planks I outlined above.

    Liat, you charge me with “intolerance” but you seem to be blissfully blind to the intolerance shown by Mr. Ben Zvi who seeks to prevent Orthodox Jews from davvening in their time-hallowed way – and, in particular, at Judaism’s most sacred site!

    In the past you have argued intellectually and respectfully on this forum. even with those with whom you disagree. It is sad that you have abandoned this approach this time around by resorting to emotive invective. To accuse a qualified experienced rabbi of “ignorance” of Judaism and Jewish history, even one with whom you may vehemently disagree, does you a disservice, Liat.

  3. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    You say the US is the only country where the Progressive streams are major – do you have percentage statistics for Australia, UK and Canada?

  4. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Dear Ron,
    If most Israeli Jews, observant or not, identify themselves with Orthodox Judaism it’s probably because: 1. that’s mainly what’s been on offer, 2. they either can’t be bothered going against the status quo or they’re perhaps intimidated by the extraordinary pressure brought to bear in much of Israeli society to conform to Orthodox pressures. I’m not sure in this discussion how secular Jews who are not interested at all in practising Judaism come into it. It would be hypocritical for secular Jews to object to forms of worship other than Orthodox, that’s for sure.

  5. Ron Burdo says:

    You forgot to mentioned one small fact – most Israelis who identify themselves as Jews, identify themselves with Orthodox Judaism. Even those who do not observe, the Shule to which they don’t go is the Orthodox one. Actually, USA is the only country where the progressive streams are major.

    Progressive Judaism is negligible in Israel. Although some secular Israeli often praise it, they actually use it as a tool against the Rabbinical establishment, not because of interest in those streams of Judaism.

    The new arrangement is a good compromise between the Judaism practiced in Israel – actually, most Jews in the world, who have interest in visiting the Western Wall, are Orthodox – and the right of the minority for worship.

  6. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Dear Rabbi Ingram,
    Gidon Ben Zvi’s article was passionately argued, but certainly not hyperbole, nor vilifying in any way. It discussed a scenario that needs airing, even though some such as yourself may prefer the status quo.

    It is not for you or others to rule that there is only one authentic way to practise Judaism and dismiss all others. There are many Jews who practice Conservative/Reform/Progressive Judaism with passion and commitment, and they are both learned and respectful. To dismiss them with the phrase of their kind of Judaism being an ‘invention of the diaspora’ is to show contempt, ignorance and intolerance. Did not Hassidism come from the eighteenth century Eastern European Diaspora? Is that too an invention?

    Stop being smug and righteous about Judaism and allow room for others.

  7. Rabbi Chaim Ingram says:

    Gidon Ben Zvi has joined that breed of people who are only able to make their point through hyperbole, calumny and vilification.

    The fashioning of religious demoninations which turn Judaism into a man-made creed is an invention of the diaspora. The majority of Israelis know of only one Judaism – the authentic kind which reformists call Orthodox. They may love it or hate it. But they acknowledge the authenticity of no other.

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