The first time I touched the Western Wall was on a Young Judea trip from Los Angeles to Israel back in 1997 — and can I just tell you? I felt … nothing.
Absolutely nothing. And, oh man, I wanted to feel something. Everyone said I would. From our rabbi in Culver City, to all my Sunday school teachers, to my friends who had been to Israel, to my mother and my grandmother who had touched the wall.
“It’s unlike anything else in the world,” they all said.
I felt like there was something wrong with me for feeling nothing when I touched it. So I nodded along with everyone else when they went on about how spiritual and meaningful it felt — but honestly? I can tell this now: I felt just a wall.
But I did feel other things that summer: Namely, a deep and abiding love of this little strip of land, this geographic fingernail that holds so much potential and so much promise. And more than that, I felt a powerful, permeating love of the people — all the people — living there.
Now, 20 years later, after immigrating to Israel nearly seven years ago, I have those feelings even more. I also feel that the wall matters to many of the people underneath this big huge tent with me. This little piece of wall is a symbol of how the Romans tried to crush us, and we survived. More than that: We thrived. We became bigger and more flexible. We became more diverse in our culture and religious experience. This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.
But then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal to create an egalitarian prayer space for Jews who are not Torah observant. And that makes me livid. Because in doing so, Netanyahu basically said, “Screw you” to our big, huge tent. He basically said, “Screw you” to Jews like me and Jews like many of you.
If you’re a Diaspora Jew who believes in pluralism, chances are you’re angry right now, and that’s good. And I’m glad you’re angry because we need you to be angry. But I need you to come with me a step further, and feel something even more meaningful: People.
Our government does not give a damn about certain people despite great protestations to the contrary. I’m just going to give you a few examples. Many Holocaust survivors are in abject poverty. One out of four, actually. We have a lovely ceremony every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, but our leaders basically do nothing to focus on the living who need help. And each year the number of survivors gets smaller and smaller, until — very soon — there will be no one left. And it really feels right now that despite the ceremony, despite ample reference to the Holocaust in political speeches abroad, that our government is just waiting for these people to die already. Because if that weren’t the case, wouldn’t we make sure that not a single Holocaust survivor was freezing in the winter, hungry all year round or alone? Is this an Israel you support?
In Israel, you can’t marry outside your own religious group or outside your own group’s strictest religious interpretation. Jews can marry only Jews. Christians can marry only Christians. Muslims can marry only Muslims. And if you’re Jewish and want to get married with a Reform rabbi in Israel, you can’t. Unless you go abroad and get married there, and then come back with a certified marriage license, and go through ridiculous legal and bureaucratic hoops and blah blah blah. This is unacceptable. Who we love and choose to make a life with is not anyone’s business but our own, and we shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops if we have enough faith to commit to someone for the rest of our lives. Is this an Israel you support?
Migrants and refugees are invisible to most Israelis — they work in the back of the kitchen, or they’re out there sorting garbage. They are poor and in need, and they are ignored. Or harassed. Or locked away. With the rare exception of people at such places as Terem Medical Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, no one looks after them. Because it’s easier to look away than face their pain and our moral shortcomings. Is this an Israel you support?
Arab citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel) get racially profiled daily. They are humiliated. Daily. They are stopped and questioned and even searched. Daily. Mahmoud can’t get a building permit, but Moshe can. Their streets are not always paved, and trash builds up along their sidewalks. They’re told, “You have it better than you would in Syria” — a disgusting thing to hear because, despite being citizens, they are still not treated as equals of their Jewish neighbors. Is this an Israel you support?
Our child poverty rates are way too high. Our schools are de facto segregated into separate and not equal systems where basically zero effort is made by the government to help integrate communities in after-school programs. Our housing prices are way too high because so much of our money goes toward building settlements, further entrenching us in a conflict that gets harder and harder to end. Is this an Israel you support?
This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.
I don’t support that Israel. But I do support Israel. I support the Israel that raises money to help a Palestinian guy pay a fine he got for wearing the wrong bathing suit on the beach — after 20 years of not seeing the shoreline because he lives behind a different wall.
I support the Israel made up of the civil rights workers and the human rights workers who are giving their lives — and in some cases, risking their lives — to defend the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.
I support the Israel whose citizens run toward a terror attack and not away from it because they want to help in any way they can.
I support the Israel whose citizens speak out against 50 years of occupation — an occupation that hasn’t made us any safer or any stronger, an occupation corroding us from within and teaching our children that some people are more equal than others.
I support the Israel whose citizens volunteer in South Tel Aviv with the migrant babies, who show up to help take care of impoverished Holocaust survivors, who send their kids to mixed schools between religious and secular Jews, and the Arabs and Jews who want their children to know their neighbors even when those neighbors come from different worlds.
I support the Israel whose citizens understand something fundamental: The Western Wall is a very important symbol of our faith and our strength as a people — but it is just a wall. Just a wall. It was the hands that placed those stones back in the day that were holy, and it is the hands that touch them today that are holy.
So, American Jews — and everyone else dismayed by the true face of our government that you are now seeing — please don’t give up on Israel. Speak out and vote with your wallets. Don’t boycott us, because that will only make the extremists on all sides that much stronger. Support us by giving to organizations that support a just and equal Israel for all her holy people, such as Hiddush, New Israel Fund, Oasis of Peace: Wahat al-Salam––Neve Shalom, and Women Wage Peace.
The Israel I support and I love and I will give my life for understands that people are, above all, the most important — and treating people with dignity, respect and, yes, equality — should be our holy mission on this earth.
I hope you will support that, too.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer in Jerusalem working on a book about the Old City. The Venice, Calif., native climbs on roofs and drinks scotch.