THE BLOG

Small-d Democracy At Israel's Western Wall

Rocks, bottles, eggs, curses were thrown. It happened again yesterday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where I live. A group of 300 or so women came to pray for Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish holiday (often especially celebrated by women) of the New Moon. They were affiliated with Women of the Wall, a Jewish group that's been trying for 28 years to loosen Orthodox Jewish customs, which frown on women praying out loud, or wearing traditional prayer shawls.

There have been months of similarly violent conflict between this group of women and Jerusalem's haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) communities. Then this April, a Jerusalem court ruled that the women were indeed not violating "local custom," and so on the Rosh Chodesh featured in my video below (about Rabbi Susan Silverman and her daughter), the morning passed relatively peacefully.

But yesterday, all powerful (male) rabbis harnessed their haredi minions -- many hundreds of teen girls and young men -- to show up at the Wall a half hour before the Women of the Wall. The haredi teen girls packed the women's prayer section -- so much that the police then decided to not let the Women of the Wall enter the prayer area at all. Still, several haredi men were detained for throwing rocks and bottles at the women.

Let's call them fundamentalists.

To me the world is a hologram (one tiny part, if looked at closely, looks like the whole shebang). It seems to be happening all over the world: one group, usually holding a lot of power (often, but not always, the "majority power"), tries -- loudly and by any means necessary -- to squash a smaller group from effecting change.

Fundamentalists believe in ultimate truths, usually derived from "holy" writings of some kind, often written thousands of years ago. Some of them talk about "democracy", but it's one-dimensional democracy: it's the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the powerful.

It's the white male majority in the Texas Senate, confronted by a single woman senator in an 11-hour filibuster against their attempt to make abortions almost impossible to get in the state.

It's the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who in the year of Morsi's rule, ruthlessly reduced the power of the judicial branch, and quickly rammed through a constitution, written mostly by MB members -- so they could make sure to keep the majority power they had won in elections.

Real democracy is different, and to me, one of the healthier impulses in humans. If a large enough minority (a single person in a small community or a family, or hundreds or thousands of people in a society) feels motivated to make change, they can try. "Small d" democracy as Rabbi Silverman calls it.

This article on "Minorities and Democracy" (which I was happy to see appeared on an Israeli website) nails it: "A fundamental principle of substantive democracy is the protection of minority rights in the face of the tyranny of the majority."

To me, the fundamentalists (like all of us) are terrified of the speed of change, and the increasing complexity, of a world made smaller and smaller through the Internet and global media. If I can Livestream a video I'm shooting somewhere on a moutaintop, or a tiny village somewhere, then I'm immediately part of the entire world. If I can send one tweet that can inspire 1,000 people to show up for a demonstration, then small groups can quickly become larger, and the status quo can change more easily.

If fundamentalists try to keep the purity of the "holy," then you know the Kotel (the Hebrew word for the Wall, the holiest site in Judaism) is going to be a battleground.

In my country, it's also the bullying, right wing coalition that has taken over the government. No, Israel is definitely NOT a democracy, if we start saying that the West Bank is part of Israel. Because there, 2.5 million Palestinians can't vote for Israeli Prime Minister, but Israeli soldiers can enter your home at any time day or night, demanding to arrest your brother or your father. In the West Bank, every Palestinian is judged in military courts (where conviction rates are 99.74 percent), while every Jew is judged in civil court. Sorry Israeli folks, we either allow real democracy in the West Bank, or we give it up to a new country that starts with "P."

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So back to the Western Wall. I try not to demonize fundamentalists (everyone has from time to time, an "inner fundamentalist"). If you want a small neighborhood where your rules reign supreme, that's fine (try driving on the Sabbath in haredi neighborhoods). But anywhere where all of society's constituents have a strong opinion, we need to negotiate.

And -- you have to fight fair (once that line is crossed, things can get violent, and that's when they get out of control -- witness Egypt at the moment).

In my video, Rabbi Silverman simplifies it perfectly to "Don't be a schmuck." A schmuck is someone who in this case spits on a 12-year old girl because she dares to wear a prayer shawl at the Western Wall. Someone who -- because they have more power at the moment -- will, by any means necessary, proclaim that their way is the only way.

I think the shakeup at the Western Wall is one of the best things to happen to Israel in decades. It's a popular uprising for change, for real democracy. Yes, many of the women protesting there are American immigrants, or visiting American Jews. And there are thousands more American Jews who are glued to this struggle, hoping that Israel's slippery slide from democracy to theocracy will be stopped, before it's too late.

And if American Jews get re-interested in change at the Western Wall, they may also get re-interested in the fate of four million (if we include Gaza) Palestinians who live, more or less, under control of the Israeli army. And we may win the struggle with many in my country, like elsewhere these days, who think that because they have the power -- that they have the right.

Deep democracy is healthy. It's the best surfboard to ride the waves of rapid change. It takes patience, practice, and especially the ability to talk with strangers who disagree with you -- without freaking out.

And don't be a schmuck.