The crime: Illegal enveloping in a tallit

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-26-09

Just days after, in all probability, the first Jew since the oppressive Soviet Union collapsed was arrested for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah, the outrage has dimmed. We have moved on to the next headline. But the Israel Police’s obnoxious overreaching at the Western Wall last week was outrageous. The arrest of Nofrat Frankel in the women’s section of the Wall, and, if reports are correct, the fact that she was held in custody for two-and-a-half hours, insults all Israelis who believe in the rule of law and freedom of religion, no matter how religious or non-religious.

What charge did the police consider while holding her – illegal enveloping in a prayer shawl? Premeditated praying? Unlicensed layning (reading of the Torah)? Now, the police claim they detained her for her own safety. But someone detained for her own safety would be held for two-and-a-half minutes at the Jaffa Gate police station, far from the Wall. Moreover, when extremist hoodlums attacked Elazar Stern, the IDF’s human resources chief, and his family, at the Wall following the Gaza disengagement four years ago, the police showed they know the difference between protecting and arresting someone.

Yes, the situation is complicated. I would not encourage my daughters to parade in a tallit and carry a Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall, just as I would not encourage my sons to walk onto the women’s side, despite the fact that for centuries Jews prayed at the wall, with men and women mingling freely. I support the compromise whereby women and mixed groups of men and women can pray at the Southern Wall – under Robinson’s Arch, while the Western Wall Plaza follows the protocols of an Orthodox synagogue.

I believe the egalitarians got the better deal. I was bar mitzvahed at the Wall, and remember my mother and grandmother straining to watch. My daughter read Torah on the Thursday before her bat mitzvah under Robinson’s Arch, and we all enjoyed an equal view. Moreover, the Western Wall plaza is sanitized, cleansed of its rocky, rubble-y history to accommodate thousands. The Southern Wall area feels more authentic, historic, with debris from the destruction 1900 years ago seemingly frozen in mid-fall. The compromise works – although freer access to the Southern Wall, and a greater effort by non-Orthodox Jews to visit this equally holy site would validate it more – even though I appreciate the current limited number of visitors preserves the shrine’s charm.

It is unfortunate but understandable that Judaism’s holiest site divides rather than unites. Both sides must remember that we are the product of our history, of the warring ideologies that still have not found a uniform resolution of the profound conflict between tradition and modernity. Still, while I would counsel Nofrat Frankel to respect the Orthodox side of the Wall, I remain appalled that the police used one of the state’s ultimate powers – the power to suspend a citizen’s freedom – when Frankel simply was asserting one of her inherent freedoms, that of religious expression.

Last spring, when Cambridge police arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates after an unfortunate confrontation, the president of the United States himself stepped in and asserted leadership. After first addressing the issue in a hasty, unproductive way, Barack Obama invited Gates and the Cambridge police officer who arrested him for a healing beer at the White House. Race flummoxes Americans as much as religion flummoxes Israelis. As the first African-American president, and Gates’ friend, Barack Obama had particular insight and empathy. In Israel’s fractured political system, with too many small parties holding the government hostage, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – or any other leader – did not dare to wade into last Wednesday’s mess.

This dodge is triply unfortunate. On religious questions and other issues, Israel badly needs the kind of moral leadership the President of the United States – of either party – frequently provides. Israelis must encourage their leaders, both through substantive political reform and a more subtle mandate, to tackle controversial issues and lead. Moreover civility cannot be assumed in a polyglot democracy with people originating from dozens of different countries, with varying political cultures. Civility must be cultivated. Political leaders can either serve as noxious weeds in the democratic garden or, when really effective, Miracle Gro.

Finally, the questions of religious freedom, separation of church and state, respect for women in Judaism, loom large in Israel-Diaspora relations – particularly among the most engaged non-Orthodox North American Jews. Rather than alienating them through foolish police actions, Israel should be working with them to establish strong multi-generational, cross-Atlantic ties.

Perhaps, then, with the Prime Minister shirking his duties to lead, the mediation should be left to the capable Diaspora Affairs Minister, Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein is a mensch, an observant Jew, with a commitment to religious freedom cemented by time in Soviet prisons. Perhaps he can reconcile both sides.

Meanwhile, the police officers – all along the chain of command – responsible for this stupid, outrageous arrest should undergo American-style sensitivity training – with a Jerusalem twist. I would sentence them, among other educational undertakings, to a Shabbat or two at Jerusalem’s egalitarian synagogues, a short walk from their Jaffa Gate headquarters. Let them experience the joyous, skilled, female-led singing at Shira Chadasha during kabbalat shabbat, the easy equality among tallit-clad women at Moreshet Avraham or Kol HaNishma, the expert women’s Torah readings, especially by bat mitzvah girls, at a growing number of Orthodox synagogues such as Yedidya. Perhaps, rather than just learning that women wrapped in prayer shawls and carrying Torahs should never be arrested, these officers might be inspired to embrace the model of dynamic, committed, pious joyous, egalitarian Judaism Nofrat Frankel was defending – and so many Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews find so meaningful.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.