Stoking the Fires of Fear| February 14, 2023
Shas's Kosel modesty bill was needlessly heavy-handed
IFthe Israeli election results three months ago were an earthquake, we’re now feeling the aftershocks. On the fault line between left and right, secular and religious, hardly a week goes by without fresh incident.
Last week, it was the Shas party’s turn to throw stones at leftist protesters. And that’s only partially metaphorical — the reference is to the stones of the Kosel, which has gone from being an area of consensus to an intractable irritant in Israel’s internal rift.
The “Kosel law” was brought forward on the individual initiative of two younger Shas MKs: Religious Affairs Minister Michael Malchieli and MK Uriel Buso, chair of the Knesset Health Committee. The bill’s preface sounded reasonable enough: Israel’s 1980s law regulating the holy places doesn’t apply to the Western Wall, whose status has yet to be settled over 50 years after its liberation in the Six-Day War.
The Shas MKs’ proposal aimed to rectify this and put an end to the Women of the Wall phenomenon. For years now, the Women of the Wall have shown up at the Kosel every Rosh Chodesh wrapped in talleisim and carrying sifrei Torah, in a flagrant provocation abetted by the Reform movement. The Shas lawmakers’ goal was to legislate an end this routine desecration of Judaism’s holiest site.
But a few additional clauses enabled leftist politicians and news outlets to whip up public hysteria. The bill proposed hefty fines and even jail time for certain offenses. And what were those, exactly? Well, the bill would have criminalized such activities as ceremonies contravening traditional practice, mixed prayer, and rituals in the women’s section that involve wearing talleisim and carrying or reading from sifrei Torah.
But two specific clauses, dubbed the “sleeves law,” caused a furor among the secular public, drawing comparisons to Iran. According to the proposal, musical instruments and immodest clothing would be banned at the Kosel, with offenders facing a fine of up to NIS 10,000 or half a year in prison.
Netanyahu, who instantly sized up the situation, hurried to provide reassurances, after a frantic call with coalition leaders, clarifying that the status quo at the Kosel will be maintained and that this bill would not be brought forward to the ministerial committee on legislation. But the damage was done, fanning the flames of anti-religious sentiment.
The Kosel is a hot potato that Netanyahu has grown used to tossing to the High Court. The egalitarian “Ezrat Yisrael” section of the plaza for mixed prayer was established on his watch. Later, his government advanced the Kosel compromise, which would have regulated the heterodox movements’ standing at the site.
The Kosel compromise, championed by Avichai Mandelblit — then government secretary, later the attorney general who indicted Netanyahu — is now in tatters. After initially accepting the plan, the chareidi parties soon backtracked and kiboshed it, leading Women of the Wall to petition the High Court.
Every incoming government faces some urgent petition or other. The common practice is to ask the High Court for an extension, to give the government time to draft its position. But when the government and the High Court are at war, even this routine process is off limits.
Last week, High Court justices rejected the government’s request for a three-month deferral of the hearings on the Women of the Wall’s petition, ruling that the hearing would be held as scheduled on February 28.
Even the government’s request for an extension of the deadline for presenting its side of the case was only partially granted. Originally set for February 6, the government requested a new deadline of February 19, but instead received a ten-day extension to February 16.
Members of the prime minister’s inner circle are predicting with near certainty that the High Court will accept the Women of the Wall’s petition, at least partially, forcing the government to pass a special Kosel law — all for the sake of getting Netanyahu into trouble with liberal American Jewry.
Shas’s preemptive bill only exacerbated the situation. Realizing that the government’s position was going to be drafted by hostile attorney general Baharav-Miara, they advanced their legislation in order to indicate the government’s actual stance.
But the addition of the tzniyus clauses only provided ammo to the left for projecting fear, making it seem that the government’s next move would be to appoint modesty police to patrol the streets of Tel Aviv.
I asked the bill’s author, Shas MK Uriel Buso, to explain the logic behind the tzniyus clauses, and his rather glib response was that the proposal’s wording was copied and pasted from the holy places regulations of 1981.
“To this day, the Kosel’s status has yet to be settled legislatively,” he said. “It’s legal to smoke in the Kosel Plaza, to stage an artistic performance, and to show up in immodest dress, which is illegal even in the Knesset building. All we did is bring up a law that the Knesset already debated 40 years ago.”
Later, after the public outcry, Shas was forced to issue a clarification: “It was never Shas’s intention to criminalize choice of attire or musical instruments at the Kosel.”
It’s worth heeding the words of former justice minister Chaim Ramon, once a key figure in Labor, who was the first to advance reform of the justice system. Ramon isn’t suspected of antipathy toward chareidim in general or Shas in particular. He’s a personal friend of Shas head Aryeh Deri and spearheaded the effort to bring Shas into the Rabin government in the ’90s.
“In my opinion,” Ramon told me this week, “even during the Oslo Accords, the right wasn’t as terrified as the left is now by the right.”
A colorful figure, Ramon came up with a creative analogy: “The absurd wording of Shas’s bill confirmed and exacerbated the secular Tel Avivi’s anxiety. I would compare it to when someone yells ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, and tries to calm things down by bringing in a lit torch.”—
The Second Amendment
Over 230 years after the drafting of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the debate over the people’s right to bear arms has arrived in Israel.
In a stormy meeting in his office with the heads of the firearms licensing department, Itamar Ben Gvir came out guns blazing: “How is it possible that only 155,000 civilians in Israel have a gun license?” the public security minister stormed. “How is it possible that only 10,000 out of 40,000 gun-license applications were approved in 2020?”
This frustration is making itself felt, and last week the firearms licensing department was talking about streamlining approval of tens of thousands of license requests per month. Some in Ben Gvir’s office sarcastically proposed a trade-in: “Let’s collect illegal firearms in the Arab sector and distribute them, with licenses, in the Jewish sector….”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 949)
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