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It was the summer of 1998 and I was standing in the sunlit plaza of the Kotel, surrounded by women in vibrantly colored tallitot and kippot. Earlier, I had connected with Anat Hoffman and arranged to pray with Women of the Wall, along with a few friends from my teen trip. As we sang Hallel, our melodies mixed with the voices of old ladies shouting and cursing at us. Soon a male security guard came over. I was sure he was going to gently escort the hecklers away, but instead, he asked us all to remove our tallitot and kippot. We were, apparently, disrupting others by wearing them.
As I took off my kippah and tallit, I felt sick to my stomach. Here I was at the Kotel, the place I had been taught was the most sacred in all of Judaism, doing the most sacred thing I knew how to do: rejoice in prayer with community. And I -– we -– were being told to stop, not by a hostile enemy, but by fellow Jews who were supposed to be protecting us.
That moment poked a hole in a core idea I had been taught in Jewish day school — that Israel was the place where we could fully actualize our Judaism, a place that should make us beam with pride. Reeling from this rude awakening, for a moment I almost wanted to disconnect from Israel. But seeing people, like Anat, who prayed at the Kotel every month and worked courageously to make Israeli society more pluralistic and egalitarian, I resolved to try to support people who are helping Israel more fully realize its holiness and live out Jewish and democratic values.
That’s why I’m so thrilled about the recent announcement about the historic compromise to form an egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall, a hard-fought and well-deserved achievement for Women of the Wall, the Conservative and Reform Movements, and many other courageous leaders. More fights lie ahead to preserve and advance religious pluralism at the Kotel and beyond. But make no mistake, these are not the only fights that await Jews who cherish Israel and value justice, freedom, and democracy.
Ten years later, in the winter of 2008, I visited the West Bank for the first time. Seeing how settlements were encroaching on Palestinian families’ olive groves, how workers waited in long lines at checkpoints and how bullet holes riddled water cisterns in a refugee camp, I felt deeply troubled and ashamed. To be sure, I recognized the dire importance of Israeli security – my own middle school teacher was killed in a bus bombing in Jerusalem — but policies that blatantly violated human dignity broke my heart. From that place of shock and shame, I was tempted to turn my back on Israel, once again, for not being the exemplar of Jewish values I expected it to be. But when a Palestinian activist said to me, “See how I’m working in my community? You go work in yours,” I realized I had to engage my community, American Jews, in helping Israel reach a lasting resolution to the conflict and a peaceful, secure end to the occupation.
Unlike with Women of the Wall, the American Jewish community has not yet lived up to the challenge. While more and more American Jews have started to speak out about the dangers of the ongoing conflict and occupation, many — especially some who hold positions of leadership in the community — are still afraid to. What would happen if we lifted that shroud of silence and started talking about the lack of a two-state solution as the urgent, dire threat that it is — not only to Israel’s security, but to its soul? What if we brought the same broad communal effort we so effectively utilized to fight for pluralism in Israel to ensure the existence of Israel for our children and grandchildren?
So, I’m celebrating the recent announcement and offering a huge mazel tov to all the players who worked tirelessly to make it happen. But I’m also hoping that American Jews will see what an important role they played and remember to be bold and candid friends of Israel when it comes to other issues of mutual concern, like saving the two-state solution and preserving Israel’s democratic future.
Sarah Beller is the Director of Programming and Education at J Street.