I've never been to the Western Wall.
That might not seem particularly strange to most people, as I'm sure most people probably don't know what it is, much less actually been to it. (For those who don't know, it is a supporting wall left over from what was the Second Temple, in Jerusalem.) What's strange about the fact that I've never been to the Western Wall is that I'm Jewish, and I lived in Israel for a year, not a 15 minute walk away from the single holiest place in the Jewish religion.
Now, I should clarify that I HAVE been to the Western Wall plaza dozens of times. There are few more inspiring sites than the Western Wall and the surrounding plaza -- including the Temple Mount -- in the entire world. Day or night, the view never fails to touch your soul with its sense of history, of spirituality. And that goes for Jew and non-Jew alike; the very ground itself marks the holy intersection of three great world religions, and in that space lie the seeds of hope and promise, as well as enmity and hatred.
Americans -- and American Jews -- have a complex relationship with Israel, a complexity that has bled into the American political process. Despite the mandatory Republican primary election "I'm stronger on Israel" declarations, with one candidate after the other trying to one up his rivals (soon to be followed by the general election declarations of "...and Democrats/liberals/Obama are bad on Israel"), Americans -- and American Jews -- are fiercely supportive and proud of the state of Israel, despite our ideological disagreements. In fact, the vast majority of all Americans believe in the existential right of Israel to exist. But "which" Israel do Americans support?
Which brings me back to the Western Wall. I've never touched the Wall for a very simple reason: women by law are segregated from men, and cannot pray as I do -- as a man -- in that space. If the American government should strive as a foreign policy goal to protect the country of Israel from enemies such as Iran and Syria (as I believe it should), Americans (and American Jews in particular) should fight to protect the people of Israel. And American Jews can't allow the foreign policy political debate that serves to define and separate the "pro-Israel" crowd from the "not pro-Israel enough" crowd to prevent us from agreeing on something on which we all should agree: all women must be treated equally under the law. That's democracy. We aren't talking about Saudi Arabia here. And the same people who crow about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East as a reason for adopting hyper-hawkish positions on Israel should be the same people who are leading the charge to defend women in Israel from being treated as second class citizens.
That, sadly, isn't the case. When an American Jew has the temerity to call out Israel for this, or this, or this, the knee-jerk response from the right (call them the Israel First crowd if you must) is to accuse the claimant of being anti-Israel. But for me, these incidents aren't as insidious or fundamentally troubling as the battle that is being fought by people like Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center and founder of Women of the Wall. Her crusade -- well-off the radar of American mainstream press -- is to allow women the right to carry Torah, to pray as equals. And while it may not be as sexy or newsworthy as some of the previous incidents I highlighted (an incredibly small sampling, sadly), it is no less-important, fundamentally so, in fact, to the claim of Israel as "the only Democracy in the Middle East."
As a progressive Jew, it never fails to baffle, embarrass, and pain me when women cannot participate as equal members of my faith. Where women face systemic inequality, societal good must surely suffer for it.
So the next time I hear a Republican candidate claim to be a bona fide supporter of Israel, who will be "Israel's best friend in the White House," I will question him or her, time and again, about their stance on women's equality in that great democracy of the Middle East -- not because I am anti-Israel, but because I love Israel, and one day-dream of finally making my way down to the Western Wall, to put my hands upon the 2000 year-old Jerusalem stone, while standing next to my wife.
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