A Simple Act

Charlie Kalech Head Injury at The Kotel
In April I became the first man arrested in the struggle for gender equality at the Western Wall. To be clear, in this case gender equality does not mean an egalitarian service in which men and women participate equally. Women of the Wall is a women’s prayer group, not an egalitarian prayer group. What they seek is the right to have a women’s prayer service as is common in many Orthodox congregations.

I was also the first person arrested since the Sobel decision in which the Israeli appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision that Women of the Wall have the right to conduct prayer services according to their own custom.

There is a current stalemate between the rabbinic policy maker at the Western Wall and the court’s decision. Like every law, the policies made by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government-run and funded nonprofit, is subject to judicial review. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, an employee of the WWHF, has set a policy that no one may bring a Torah scroll in or out of the Kotel plaza for fear that it may get mixed up with one of the scrolls stored there and that someone may try to steal a Torah. He has also ruled that women may not take one of the 100 Torah scrolls available for use at the Western Wall. The stalemate is that while the court has ruled that women may read Torah at the Kotel, Rabbi Rabinowitz has ruled that they can not have a Torah to read. And herein lies the problem which will not be solved until someone is arrested and goes before a judge.

credit miriam alster

credit miriam alster

The absurdity of my arrest is that it came as a result of my going to the police to report a crime perpetrated against me. The trumped up charges of disturbing the public order was only charged against me when I filed a complaint after receiving a head injury by someone who we assume works for the WWHF. While I will not go into all the details of what happened here, there are numerous places online where you can read about what happened; the most accurate of which is in the Jerusalem Post interview of me which you can access at www.kalech.com/wow-attack.

Many people have asked why I support Women of the Wall. In fact, this month, the Jerusalem Post magazine had a large feature about the men who support Wow. You can read it at www.kalech.com/wow-attack/men.pdf.

Since my days at Columbia University in the 1980s I have been labeled a feminist. However, in actuality I am not only a feminist. I believe in protecting the rights of those who have less power than I do. To me, this is an essential part of democracy. Democracy is not only the rule of the majority, but the protection of minorities. What is more, as a white, ashkenazi Jewish man in the State of Israel, I am a member of the most powerful segment of society. Having made aliyah after experiencing antisemitism, and knowing that my mother had to flee her birthplace after her family’s lives were threatened in Czechoslovakia in 1939, I feel a special obligation to protect minorities and those with less power than myself. The words of Pastor Niemöller are ever-present in my mind, as is Burke’s assertion that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The Torah also commands us not to stand idly by and so I do not.
When I was a teenager and into my twenties, it was common for mixed groups to gather in the Kotel Plaza for prayer. By 1997, even when a group of us had obtained a police permit to pray together, once the ultra-Orthodox started a commotion, the police forcibly removed us. I was put in a headlock by a policemen for praying at the Western Wall. After that I did not return to the Wall for a decade.

However, once the Sobel decision was passed, I wanted to stand in solidarity and support the rights which the court had upheld. Initially I was asked by WoW to help with some logistics and later I was asked to talk a more active role in the radical civil disobedient act of helping a women receive a sefer Torah at the Kotel.

This occurred after an steady radicalization of policies inflicted by the religious right in Israel. These restrictions are becoming more and more extreme, especially at the Kotel and especially in regard to gender segregation. Last month, new signs appeared at the Kotel Plaza calling for the “absolute separation of men and women.” The bus route to the Kotel was the first public bus which separated men and women and eventually spread throughout Jerusalem and to other cities until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court. Much of what starts at the Kotel as a test case, spreads to the rest of Israel against the will of the majority.

Gender segregation and the the delegitimization of women is something that the religious right in America is also promoting. Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a tea party activist who has appeared several times on Fox News said “I think that one of the greatest mistakes America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote…. We should’ve never turned this over to women…. They’re voting in people who are evil who agrees with them who’re gonna take us down this pathway of destruction.” He is joined by people like Ann Coulter, a social and political commentator, writer, syndicated columnist, and lawyer who frequently appears in the media has actually called for the repeal of women’s right to vote. It is a movement that has grown in strength.

It was not my intention to get arrested. I simply did what I thought was right and to this day I do not think that I did anything wrong or broke any law. All I did was hand a Torah scroll to a woman who had opened the gate in the mechitza and walked towards me as I held the Torah. It was a simple act, but one that no one had ever done before.

I would be happy to hear what you think. Please comment below

20 thoughts on “A Simple Act

  1. Edgar Stern

    Mr. Kalech, I thank you for taking a risk for women who wish to pray at the Western Wall. The Wall is meaningful and holy to all Jews and belongs to all Jews.
    The fact that the Orthodox segment of the Israeli community can break the law (as set by the Israeli Supreme Court) with such impunity flies in the face of democracy. Israel does consider itself the only real democracy in the Middle East. Democracy does not mean rule by a minority. It does, however, include the protection of minorities, even women who wish to pray at the Wall.
    Mildred Stern

  2. Rachel Cohen Yeshurun

    Of course you didn't do anything wrong or break any law! Now we just need to figure out how to repeat the success (minus the head injury…). Here's to hoping it won't be a one-time victory.

  3. Glenn Tamir

    I applaud you for your act and for helping WOW. I find it hard to believe Ann Coulter is in favor of removing women from having the right to vote. You sure about that?

  4. Dan Silagi

    Excellent article. I remember on both my visits to Israel, in 1967 shortly after the Kotel was liberated and again in 1979, there was no mechitza, and none of this nonsense from the ultra-orthodox. As Charlie points out, this is a recent development.

    I am older than Charlie. During the late 1960's, when I was a student and supposed to be an activist, for the most part, I stood silent. Well, I'm making up for it now. I am proud to add my voice to those who stand against the tyranny of the majority, although what's going on in Israel now actually the tyranny of a minority which represents a much-sought-after swing vote in an unstable coalition.

  5. Donny Reich

    Wouldn't it be great if there was a part of the Kotel that was Orthodox, and a part of the Kotel that was not-Orthodox? That way everyone can pray however they want, and not be bothered or disturbed by others?

    Oh wait, women of the wall are not interested in that!

  6. Dan Silagi

    How about alternating between Robinson's Arch and the Kotel proper? On odd days, the WoW pray at the Kotel. On even days, Robinson's Arch?

  7. Charlie Kalech

    You can hear it for yourself at https://soundcloud.com/free-speech/ann-coulter

    Coulter said “women should not have the right to vote.” She continued that while women should not vote, “We can still write books! We can run for office.”

    “You just can’t vote,” McInnes reiterated.

    This is not the first time Coulter voiced her support for female disenfranchisement. In 2007, Coulter said that “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat [sic] president.” Coulter described this as a “pipe dream” and a “personal fantasy” of hers that women, especially the single women who “are voting so stupidly,” will finally be silenced.

    – See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/ann-coulter-women-should-not-have-right-vote-they-can-still-write-books#sthash.L6UA9CRS.dpuf

  8. Charlie Kalech

    Donny Reich I was not aware that civil rights are a proportional system. I guess you also believe in the old university quota system that kept Jews out of universities in the United States for many years. How absurd. BTW WoW is in negotiations with the government to open up another section of the Wall for non-Orthodox prayer. However, what the group has sought is the right for women to pray as they want in the women's section – not to be mixed with men. If you are inclined to grant them what they want but only on a proportional basis, it is not even one day a month but 2 hours. So let them be for two hours a month. Is that too much to ask?!

  9. Donny Reich

    Charlie Kalech I was responding to Dan's comments. WoW rarely attracts more than a hundred women, while there can be thousands praying in an Orthodox manner at the Western Wall Plaza. Robinson's arch has adequate space for WoW but not for all the Orthodox mitpallilim at the Western Wall Plaza. To suggest alternating the spaces is just not practical.

    Civil rights does NOT mean everything has to be 50-50, just fair. Nowhere did I suggest things be proportional. In fact, I suggested opening MORE of the kotel. There is currently space for WoW to pray as the wish at the Kotel without disturbing or offending anyone, and without causing a public spectacle. This should be a non-issue, too bad WoW wants to continue making it an issue.

  10. Dan Silagi

    This is not an issue of proportionality. It's one of obeying the law; civil law. Justice Sobel decreed that WOW (and others) can pray at the Kotel as they see fit, not necessarily as some black-hatted curmudgeon sees fit.

  11. Dan Silagi

    This is not an issue of proportionality. It's one of obeying the law; civil law. Justice Sobel decreed that WOW (and others) can pray at the Kotel as they see fit, not necessarily as some black-hatted curmudgeon sees fit.

  12. Charlie Kalech

    I do not think you understand the issue Donny, WoW is a women's only prayer group. They want to daven in a gender-segregated area (WOMEN ONLY). Robinson's Arch is not segregated, but mixed and therefore is not an option for them.

    How do you know how many women WoW attracts? I regularly am there and they regularly attract more than 100 women so you appear to be misinformed.

    You say that you did not suggest that things be proportional, but did you not write "Clearly the biggest group should get the biggest section?" How do you define proportional if not that?!

    What some members of WoW want is to be left alone. There have been times when there were no ultra-Orthodox instigators and WoW actually could do what they want – pray. Any WoW member will tell you these were their best experiences.

    I suggest that before spouting opinions, you check out the facts

    Why are you blaming the victim here?

    Why can't women pray in the women's section as they do in many ORTHODOX synagogues, including reading from the Torah?

  13. Donny Reich

    Are you saying that in many ORTHODOX synagogues women read from the Torah in the women's section, while other women who are offended by this try to pray in a different way? Let's be honest here.

    Are you also arguing that WoW attracts a similiar number of worshipers as does the rest of the western wall plaza? Against, let's be honest.

    And how many men are actually praying at Robinson's arch at ANY given time, let alone the one time a month when WoW comes.

    The reality is, WoW CAN do what they want at the Kotel. But that is not there goal, is it?

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