Editor’s Note: Rabbi Rabinovic, the rabbi of the Western Wall, sent an apology letter for having discriminated against the female reporters. Read more here.

The Western Wall is a magnet for contention and dispute. It seems impossible to operate a program at the Western Wall plaza, particularly the space directly adjacent the wall, which is used for prayer, that will not erupt into some sort of controversy. Even still, the anger and protests that erupted from a brief, ten minute visit by United States Vice President Mike Pence’s seem greatly out of proportion. But perhaps it was exactly the response we should have expected.

Revered as the holiest place where Jews can pray, the Western Wall is actually a relatively small segment of a far larger retaining wall of the ancient Temple Mount complex. While it’s history is as complex as the rest of Jerusalem’s Old City, it was basically viewed as a shrine until Israel liberated the Old City in 1967. At that point, the area was immediately cleared, and something of a synagogue established there.

The policy has always been that at such a holy site traditional Jewish law should be upheld.

Friction over the religious policies at the site broke out as early as 1968, and continue until today. The policy has always been that at such a holy site traditional Jewish law should be upheld. The main issue of contention is the exclusivity of Orthodox prayer rules, primarily gender-segregated praying, though other rules and customs have come under attack as well.

These policies have been enforced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs as well as Israel’s Supreme Court. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation has been the body responsible for administering all matters of the Western Wall since 1988, with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, as its chairman since 1995, responsible for maintaining the site as a sacred religious prayer space in the Jewish tradition.

On Tuesday, January 23rd, the United States Vice President was planning a stop at the Western Wall as part of his two-day trip to Israel. A fairly routine event for a visiting dignitary, if not always for a head of state.

As a photographer, I can tell you that those ten minutes were the gold.

As a photographer, I can tell you that those ten minutes were the gold. Meetings with Bibi? Speaking at the Knesset? Yes, all very important and newsworthy. But nothing could be as photogenic and emotionally appealing as catching Pence touching the ancient stones, that moment in prayer, placing a note. This is not anything unexpected.

As I have not yet gotten a GPO card, I was unlikely to secure a coveted spot covering Pence’s visit to the Wall, so I did not try. But I was in touch with my colleagues who were there, and I followed the reports as they happened.

The first report I read, in Times of Israel, stated in the subtitle, “US VP says Psalm at holy site, writes ‘God bless the State of Israel’ in guestbook; female journalists kept in separate area”

I reread it because I couldn’t believe my eyes: “female journalists kept in separate area.”

I could not get past that.

I called one of my photographer friends to find out, Was this true? What did it even mean? And why did it happen?

Suddenly, these women lost their chance at getting the best shot.

It was true. Apparently, when the journalists – men and women – arrived to cover the event, they each scrambled for the best spots with the best angles, as they always do. Then the women were told to move to a partitioned area, four rows behind the men. Suddenly, these women lost their chance at getting the best shot.

The arrangements were reportedly made by the American Embassy, though US officials said that the rules had been required by Rabbi Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, in “accordance with the sanctity of the site.”

Had they lost sight of the purpose of this visit? What were they hoping to achieve? A private visit by a dignitary to a holy site, the whole place is cleared for an occasion covered by the press, set up as a staging area for this purpose alone, and the rabbi in charge decides to exert his power… and for what?

We’re not talking about a synagogue in service.

I understand the desire to  maintain Orthodox prayer policies at the Western Wall as they are nothing if not traditional.  I believe the restrictions upheld in this space are often taken way too far – but that is not at issue here. We’re not talking about a synagogue in service. We’re talking about a visiting dignitary at a public space that is used as a synagogue, but wasn’t at the time.

I heard from other friends who were present; There were journalists from all over. It was not a Jewish event. There was certainly no Jewish prayer taking place. In fact, the entire prayer area had been completely cleared of worshippers ahead of time.

I tried imagining what those female journalists and photographers were thinking – what everyone was thinking – when the women were directed to move to the back. When suddenly those choice views, those spots they staked out for themselves, were taken from them.

And given to men.

Journalists should be given the same opportunities to cover a story.

I could understand if it were in the context of Jewish, religious services. But I do not understand it in the context of a ten minute visit by a foreign dignitary. Journalists should be given the same opportunities to cover a story unless there is a good reason. The fact that an area is used for Orthodox segregated prayer isn’t a ‘reason’ when it is during a time that such separate prayer is not taking place.

If it were truly a priority to ensure that men and women should be seated separately, the embassy could have set up a side-by-side mechitzah which would have ensured equal access to both the men and women. It seems that no thought was given to the women at all, only that they should be kept away from the men.

Hearing all this, I was horrified. I was embarrassed. I don’t know if I could have tolerated it, had I been there. One thing I do know: using religion as an excuse for unjust practices has to stop.

Laura Ben-David is a marketing consultant, photographer and social media activist. Originally from New York, she started writing when she made Aliyah from Florida and never stopped. A popular writer and speaker, Laura’s subjects of choice include Israel, Aliyah & social media – and sometimes all three at once.   

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