The young girl’s question — “How do you feel about Women of the Wall?” — couldn’t have been more timely, as Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky made groundbreaking recommendations this week providing access at the Wall for egalitarian Jewish worship services, something Women of the Wall champions.
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Merav Michaeli, the media personality turned new Knesset member, didn’t miss a beat.
In a question-and-answer session after her talk at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun last weekend, the Labor Party member told the girl that she sees no justification for the mechitza [gender partition] in a public space.
“In general, Israelis are getting a little too accepting of walls,” she said.
During her talk at B’nai Jeshurun, Michaeli, 46, lingered on the word “independence.” Her theme was Israel’s upcoming 65th anniversary. But she questions if Israel can fully celebrate its independence before freeing itself from its conflict with the Palestinians.
“Israel will never be fully free to discuss its Jewish identity before it frees itself from dominating other people,” she said. At the same time she cautions against an overly-interventionist U.S. policy insisting, “Israel needs to do it on its own time, with every concern for its own security.”
Michaeli, who rode into the Knesset with the Labor Party, is one of a new breed of Israeli politicians. Like Yair Lapid, she is already a branded media star. Unlike Lapid, she remains deeply suspicious of his Yesh Atid party’s alliance with religious Zionist parties. She is certain they will enforce “the same old-fashioned Orthodoxy,” even if they do so “with a more pleasant smile.”
Poised and soft-spoken, Michaeli is no newcomer to controversy. Her grandfather Rudolf Kastner was accused of treachery for negotiating a deal with Eichmann that resulted in the rescue of some 1,700 Hungarian Jews, yet inevitably left many others to die. Michaeli is skilled at bringing transparency and tempered hope to a polarized landscape. Her non-strident commitment to economic justice even prompted Moshe Gafni of the fervently Orthodox Yahadut Hatorah party to proclaim common cause in the Knesset.
Michaeli, widely known as a journalist, broadcaster and educator, made her mark as an activist for feminist causes. Yet she startled the BJ audience by saying, “There is no such thing as women”; she went on to explain that women’s issues cannot be considered separately from economics, peace and social justice. Her feminism was clear when she spoke of “renewing” the Hebrew language. Instead of accepting the grammatical convention of the masculine plural subsuming the feminine, she routinely changed her verb endings to the feminine.
From the pulpit, she chastised Israeli politicians both on the right and the left for whom “leadership means frightening people.” Rather than reacting to threats, Michaeli said that Israelis need to enlarge their capacity “for imagining peace.”
She highlighted “a new juncture” in the relationship between Israeli and American Jews, one that calls for a broader and more nuanced conversation.
Michaeli concluded, “The common good is something that is out there and is accessible to us if we choose it.” She entered politics “to try to work with these things from within,” adding, “It remains to be seen if this is possible.”