BBC claims a place it reported from last year does not exist

An article relating to an incident which had taken place earlier in the day at the Western Wall appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the afternoon of March 8th under the headline “Western Wall: Jewish women clash over prayer rights”.

At the end of that article readers were told that:

“For 30 years, the Women of the Wall group have been fighting rules that bar women from wearing prayer shawls, praying and reading from the Torah (Bible) collectively and aloud at the site.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, women should not perform these religious rituals. Under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, the Israeli authorities in 2017 scrapped plans to create a mixed-gender prayer area at the wall.”

That link leads to an article produced by the BBC News website in June 2017 which failed even then to provide readers with clear background information that would enable the proper understanding of the story.

Now the BBC claims that “the Israeli authorities in 2017 scrapped plans to create a mixed-gender prayer area at the wall” and the average reader would obviously understand from that statement that no such “mixed-gender prayer area” exists at the Western Wall because the Israeli authorities “scrapped (i.e. discarded) plans” to create one two years ago.

That, however, is not the case. What was “scrapped” – or more accurately, frozen – in 2017 was a plan to create a new and unique entrance to the Western Wall plaza and the formation of a joint committee to oversee the mixed prayer area.

Non-traditional prayer services have been taking place at the southern section of the Western Wall since the year 2000 and the facility was expanded in 2013. That mixed-gender prayer area still exists – as the BBC apparently knows because earlier on in the same report it stated that:

“The group [‘Women of the Wall’] was later escorted to another area of the wall that allows non-traditional prayers to take place.”

In July 2018 – the year after the BBC claims that plans for a mixed-gender prayer area were “scrapped” – it reported on the falling of a stone from the Western Wall in that very prayer area.

Obviously the inaccurate claim made in this latest article is misleading to BBC audiences both in general and with regard to this specific story and requires correction.

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BBC R4’s ‘Today’ fails to give full account of Western Wall story

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.

This report did not inform audiences that even before the ‘Kotel deal’ fell apart, the issue had been taken to the High Court.

“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.”

Listeners were also not informed that interviewee Laura Janner-Klausner has expressed public support for that High Court petition.

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.

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BBC’s Western Wall report fails to provide adequate information

On June 26th the BBC News website’s Middle East page ran an article headlined “Jewish group cancels Netanyahu dinner over Western Wall decision” which opened as follows:

“A leading Israeli Jewish group has cancelled a gala dinner with Israel’s PM after his government froze plans to upgrade a mixed-gender area for prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The board of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, said it “deplored” the move.”

The article later includes further reporting of, and a link to, the Jewish Agency’s statements together with those of two additional organisations; the UJA and ‘Women of the Wall‘.

“The [Jewish Agency] board later passed a resolution warning that the “dangerous and damaging steps” had a “deep potential to divide the Jewish people”.

“We call upon the government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly,” it added.

The United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York said the Israeli government’s actions “would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home”.

Women of the Wall (WOW), a liberal group that campaigns for the right of women to perform the same prayer rituals as Orthodox men there, said Sunday had been a “terrible day for women in Israel” and accused Mr Netanyahu of “kow-towing to a handful of religious extremists”.”

But how is the core story that is the subject matter of this article portrayed?

In addition to being told in the opening paragraph that the Israeli government “froze plans to upgrade a mixed-gender area for prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall”, readers are informed that:

“Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit the [Western] wall to pray. It is administered by the Orthodox rabbinate and, in accordance with Orthodox tradition, men and women must pray in separate areas.

For years the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which have large followings outside Israel, campaigned for a mixed-gender prayer space.

Since 2013, a temporary prayer area for mixed worship was opened at the southern end of the wall and in 2016, Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet voted in favour of plans to upgrade it.

But after two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition raised objections to the plans, ministers voted at a meeting on Sunday to suspend their implementation.”

Right at the end of the article readers are told that:

“Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman later issued a statement stressing that it was important to Mr Netanyahu that “every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall” and that he had issued three directives on Sunday which had “gone unnoticed”.

“First, the prime minister instructed that work to prepare the southern plaza be expedited so that Jews from all streams may pray at the Western Wall. Second, that Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today. Third, the prime minister instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and me to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution,” the statement said.”

Obviously uninformed readers would not be able to understand from the conflicting statements presented by the BBC in this report whether or not the mixed prayer space at the Western Wall continues to exist or what the practical implications of this cabinet decision actually are. Fortunately, the Times of Israel has a much clearer explanation of the story.

“Starting in the year 2000, following a long legal and public awareness battle, liberal Jews have had the right, granted by the State of Israel, to pray in the southern section of the Western Wall plaza. Alongside other liberal Jewish movements, the Israeli Conservative movement has since maintained prayer shawls and prayer books there in an effort to encourage pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. […]

This area adjacent to the Western Wall currently contains two main areas of temporary prayer platforms, which are built over and among the archaeological remains. […]

The 450-meter larger platform was opened […] in August 2013 by Naftali Bennett, then the religious affairs minister. At the time, Bennett said it was meant to be “an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.” […]

The 2013 temporary platform was met by skepticism — and in some cases disdain — by leaders of Diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall, who at that point sought a space at the more normative Western Wall complex, or, at the very least, a permanent solution.

In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit to aid in leading negotiation efforts to reach a compromise acceptable to liberal Jewry, the Women of the Wall, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, otherwise known as the rabbi of the western wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch. […]

…after years of negotiations, on January 31, 2016, the government passed a decision, colloquially called the “Kotel deal” […] The egalitarian prayer would continue in the southern area of the Western Wall, but there would be one entrance for all to the Western Wall plaza, which would lead to the different pluralistic, men’s and women’s pavilions.

There was to be a joint committee of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials overseeing the southern area. The existing Orthodox prayer pavilion would be administered by Rabinovitch. Additionally, the temporary prayer platforms would double in size and be more connected.”

Another explanation of the situation can be found in a video uploaded to Facebook by Naftali Bennett in which he explains that what has been ‘frozen’ is the new entrance and the formation of the joint committee. The actual mixed prayer space remains accessible and in use and – according to Bennett – will be expanded. Next month, there will be a hearing on the issue in the High Court.  

It would obviously have been helpful to BBC audiences trying to understand this story – and seeking to put comments such as [a] “terrible day for women in Israel” into context – had the corporation clarified that the mixed prayer space that has been in use for years has not in fact been affected at all.  

BBC Radio 4’s ‘PM’ resuscitates a two month-old story

Back in March, the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ produced a report about a woman who is suing the El Al airline after having been asked to move to a different seat.

At the time, presenter Razia Iqbal chose to frame the story as being indicative of negative trends in Israeli society as a whole but failed to provide any factual evidence to support her anecdotal assertion.

“Noa, I wonder if you would care to comment on what you think has shifted in Israeli culture and society that has made this sort of encounter that Renee has had more frequent.”

“Renee, when you listen to Noa put this into the context of this having been a shift that’s taken place over the last 15 to 20 years […] what are your reflections on that cultural shift that’s taken place?”

In April the BBC World Service promoted on social media a section from the radio programme ‘Newsday’ ostensibly relating to a story from Switzerland about male Muslim pupils refusing to shake hands with female teachers. However, almost half that promoted item was devoted to the same El Al story.PM R4 13 5

On May 13th the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘PM’ included an item (from 44:40 here) about the same story. Following an interview with the woman suing El Al, presenter Eddie Mair told listeners in the UK:

“If you have experience in the same area, you know our e-mail address.”

Considering that this is a two month-old story about an Israeli woman suing an Israeli airline in an Israeli court, the editorial decisions behind BBC’s repeated promotion of it – particularly on a domestic radio station – are decidedly curious.

Another ‘dark Israel’ story from BBC World Service’s ‘Newshour’

The afternoon version of the March 7th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ included a story (from 14:13 here) about a woman who is suing the El Al airline after having been asked to move to a different seat.Newshour 7 3 El Al story

“Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old resident of Jerusalem who fled the Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1941, told The New York Times in an interview published this week that an ultra-Orthodox passenger on her flight from Newark to Tel Aviv in December didn’t want to sit beside a woman. A flight attendant offered her a different seat in the business class section to accommodate the man’s religious beliefs.”

‘Newshour’ presenter Razia Iqbal spoke with both Ms Rabinowitz and Noa Sattath, director of the inadequately introduced Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) which is acting on her behalf. Interestingly, in an earlier interview with Ha’aretz on the same topic, Ms Sattath stated that the issue is not confined to El Al or Israeli airlines.

“A religious advocacy group in Israel has launched an initiative to tackle the controversial issue of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on airplanes.

In a newsletter dated January 5, Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which describes itself as the public and legal advocacy arm of the country’s Reform Movement, told recipients that if action is not taken soon, “we may find ourselves going down a dangerous slippery slope.”

Hoffman is one of the leading figures behind Women of the Wall, the Jewish feminist prayer group. […]

According to its January newsletter, IRAC has contacted some 19 airlines this month that fly to and from Israel, and “invited them to meet with us so that we can help them “evolve their positions on this issue.” […]

“We know that for our public this is a big issue, and our public is Reform Jews, the biggest stream in the U.S.” IRAC is in discussions with a number of American organizations who are interested in joining the campaign, too, Sattah said.”

Razia Iqbal however chose to frame the story as being indicative of negative trends in Israeli society as a whole.

“Noa, I wonder if you would care to comment on what you think has shifted in Israeli culture and society that has made this sort of encounter that Renee has had more frequent.”

“Renee, when you listen to Noa put this into the context of this having been a shift that’s taken place over the last 15 to 20 years […] what are your reflections on that cultural shift that’s taken place?”

Neither Razia Iqbal nor her interested party interviewee from IRAC provided any factual, quantified evidence to support that anecdotal assertion of a “shift” in Israeli society and neither bothered to inform listeners that Israel’s High Court of Justice has ruled gender segregation unlawful. That of course means that listeners were herded towards accepting the claim put forward as fact.

Notably, when the BBC has reported on stories concerning gender segregation in the UK – for example at universities and political meetings – audiences have not been told that this is indicative of a negative cultural and social shift in British society as a whole.

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Three simultaneous BBC reports on same subject

Visitors to the Middle East section of the BBC News website on April 11th/12th 2013 may perhaps have been surprised to discover that one of the most important stories going on in the region – at least according to the amount of coverage allocated by the BBC – was one concerning ‘Women of the Wall’.


Particularly strange is the fact that two of those reports – one written and one filmed – relate to the April 11th arrest of five members of ‘Women of the Wall’: an event which was already over around the time that these BBC reports appeared, as a Jerusalem judge had ordered their release after a few hours. Neither of those reports makes that fact clear. The third article, written by Erica Chernofsky, also mentions the women’s arrest on April 11th, and it too fails to mention their release, even though it was published several hours after that event. 

Whatever one’s personal view of the 25-year-old campaign by members of ‘Women of the Wall’, it is difficult to understand how the BBC can justify running three remarkably similar reports on the subject simultaneously.