Back in late June the BBC News website produced an article about a dispute concerning prayer arrangements at the Western Wall which failed to provide readers with a comprehensive view of its subject matter.
On August 18th, with no reason explained or apparent, the BBC Radio 4 news and current affairs programme ‘Today‘ revisited that story (from 01:21:30 here). Listeners were told by the programme’s presenter that:
“The Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest place that Jews can pray but it’s been the focus too of a very long-running controversy. Women must pray separately from men in a smaller place, barred from some religious rituals reserved for their male counterparts.”
Listeners unfamiliar with Jewish religious practices (in other words, the majority of this programme’s audience) were not informed that such arrangements are in effect at Orthodox synagogues around the world and not just at the Western Wall. The introduction continued:
“The issue came to a head earlier this year when Israel’s right-wing coalition shelved plans for an official egalitarian prayer space at the wall – a decision that’s strained relations with liberal Jewish diaspora groups, including in Britain and the US. Our Middle East correspondent Tom Bateman reports from Jerusalem.”
Clearly listeners would be likely to inaccurately conclude from that introduction that, with plans having been “shelved”, no “egalitarian prayer space” exists at the Western Wall.
Tom Bateman’s report included two interviewees, one of whom is a regular BBC contributor – although listeners were not informed of that fact.
Bateman: “Laura Janner-Klausner – senior rabbi to Reform Judaism – is one of those who want the authorities to modernise the rules at the Kotel, as it is called in Hebrew: as site whose running has become a potent symbol for control over their faith.”
Janner-Klausner: “The place is administered by an ultra-Orthodox – strictly Orthodox – religious authority. A lot of the trigger points are around who can pray from a Torah scroll here. That’s the incendiary device: the bible as grenade.”
Later on listeners heard Bateman say:
“The ground skirmishes between progressives and the strictly Orthodox have given way to a broader battle. The Israeli government last year agreed officially to upgrade a temporary mixed-gender area by the wall; a so-called egalitarian prayer space championed by liberal Judaism. But this summer the deal fell apart, sparking outrage from many Jewish diaspora groups who felt shunned.”
Janner-Klausner: “Here you have one group – the Israeli government – who have, in order to get a very narrow win, sold out on the religious aspirations of millions of Jews internationally. This is corrosive for relationship.”
Although uninformed listeners would not know it, what Bateman describes as a “temporary […] egalitarian prayer space” has in fact existed for seventeen years and – despite the impression given in this report – it continues to be open to anyone wanting to use it.
As was explained here last time the BBC reported on this subject, the aspects of the ‘Kotel deal’ of January 2016 which were affected when it “fell apart” as Bateman puts it are plans for a communal entrance to all the various prayer areas at the Western Wall and plans for a joint committee to run the mixed gender prayer area.
“Then there is the High Court petition, submitted by the Reform and Conservative Movements together with Women of the Wall, which demanded that the government either implement the compromise resolution of January 2016 or allocate them prayer space in the main plaza, splitting it into three sections – two separate areas for men and women and one for egalitarian prayer.
It is conceivable that the High Court will rule that by stymieing the compromise proposal for the southern Western Wall the government has created a situation of fundamental inequality in the ability of progressive Jews to pray at a government- mandated holy site at the Western Wall in accordance with their customs.
If it were to take this position, dividing the main plaza into three is a possible, and explosive, outcome.”
The High Court will hold a hearing on August 31st.
“The state’s position was outlined on Tuesday in its response to a petition from the progressive Jewish movements and the Women of the Wall organization, demanding that either the cabinet decision from January 2016 be implemented or that a section for progressive Jewish prayer be created at the main Western Wall site. […]
According to the state’s response to the High Court petition, the Prime Minister’s Office is investing NIS 19.2 million in upgrading and developing the current egalitarian prayer platform which will closely resemble the physical upgrades planned under the original resolution but without the shared entrance that was a key demand of the progressive Jewish movements and WoW [Women of the Wall].
The site will be managed by the state-run Company for the Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a steering committee under the control of representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office will provide oversight to ensure that the relevant services are being provided to visitors.
An additional NIS 2.2m. per year will be provided by the PMO to fund various facilities and services required at the site.”
Unusually, after listeners had heard an opposing opinion from the second interviewee, Janner-Klausner was brought back in to have what some may view as an antagonistic last word.
Janner-Klausner: “What is pure Judaism, what is authentic Judaism is the fact that we have evolved. We’re no longer in the desert, we no longer sacrifice and we no longer run according to high priests. People become rabbis not because of who their parents are but because of their knowledge. That is pure, authentic, evolving Judaism and that is what has kept the Jewish people surviving for thousands of years. The innovation that you cannot innovate is not Jewish.”
Listeners to Bateman’s report did not hear from anyone representing the Israeli government and once again, audiences were not provided with the full range of information essential for complete understanding of the story and what the dispute is really about. Essentially, therefore, this item is an advocacy piece featuring a regular BBC contributor who supports a petition that will be the subject of a court hearing in just a few days’ time.