President Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall on Monday. And he did so by maintaining the strict gender boundaries that govern this historic and holy space.
The president, currently stopping in Israel and the West Bank during his first official trip abroad, visited the wall with Melania Trump, his wife, and his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who are both Orthodox Jews.
According to Haaretz, the family arrived at the site together but split up to visit different sections of the wall. Trump and Kushner visited the men’s prayer plaza together, accompanied by the religious custodian of the site, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and Mordechai Eliav, director-general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The president approached the wall wearing a yarmulke and touched the stones with his right hand before slipping a note into the cracks.
He later told journalists that visiting the site was a “great honor.”
“I can see a much deeper path, friendship with Israel,” Trump said, according to NBC.
In the meantime, Melania and Ivanka visited the women’s section, which is separated from the men’s plaza by a barrier.
In a tweet, Ivanka said that it was “deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.” She converted to Judaism before marrying her husband.
The Western Wall is one of the holiest sites in the world for Jewish people. The wall, which dates from around the 2nd century BCE, is believed to be the remains of an ancient Jewish temple complex at the site.
Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment enforces strict restrictions at the site that prevent men and women from praying together. Women at the wall are also banned from reading aloud from the Torah and wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawls.
Worshippers at the Western Wall aren’t allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls into the prayer site. The Orthodox Jewish organization that runs the site makes Torah scrolls available in the men’s section, but the scrolls aren’t available to women.
Just last week, hundreds of Reform Jews defied prayer restrictions with a mixed-gender prayer protest at the holy site. The protestors brought in their own Torah scrolls.
The gender restrictions at the wall apply to female reporters covering the president as well. Glenn Thrush, a New York Times White House correspondent, tweeted that female journalists were separated from male journalists at the religious site. The reporters who followed former President Barack Obama during a visit to the Western Wall during the 2008 campaign were also asked to follow similar guidelines, according to Politico.
Feminist activist groups, such as the Women of the Wall, and more liberal Jewish denominations, like Reform and Conservative Judaism, have long campaigned for equal prayer rights at the site. Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. Together with Conservative Judaism, these two branches of the religion have five times as many members as the more observant Orthodox Jewish community in America. On the other hand, Reform and Conservative denominations have a much smaller presence in Israel.
In January 2016, the Israeli government approved a plan to replace a temporary ramp that has been used in the past for egalitarian prayer services with a permanent and larger plaza for mixed-gender praying. The approval of that space was initially hailed as a victory, but critics claim the plan hasn’t resulted in equality at the site.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t taken concrete actions to fully implement the plan, under pressure from Israel’s religious establishment, which doesn’t recognize the Reform and Conservative movements as Jewish. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the site’s chief custodian, has also forbidden any prayer from taking place on that temporary ramp. Ultra-Orthodox protesters frequently occupy the space and set up their own gender-segregating barrier on the platform.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told HuffPost that it was “stirring” to see the American president pausing to reflect at Judaism’s holiest site. But he urged the president to take concrete actions towards creating peace in the region.
“President Trump has said over and over that he is looking to help shape ‘the ultimate deal.’ We welcome his leadership, and urge him to help craft a process, and then an agreement, that guarantees peace, security and basic rights for both Israel and the Palestinians,” he wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Jacobs said that the gender separation of the Trump family at the Western Wall, also referred to as the Kotel, didn’t come as a surprise.
“As expected, the President and his family visited the Western Wall according to US protocol,” Jacobs wrote. “We have been in touch with the new US Ambassador about the Kotel issue—and the issues of religious pluralism in Israel more generally—and we sincerely hope that we get continued US encouragement regarding the enfranchisement of the majority of world Jewry in Israel, whether it is at the Kotel or elsewhere in Israel.”