Of, For, and Off the Wall: Media Coverage at the Kosel

Early last Friday morning, different groups gathered at the Kosel plaza. The largest group, estimated at well over 10 thousand women and girls from across the spectrum of Torah Jewry, had responded to a call by a newly founded group named Women for the Wall that had received the warm endorsement of Gedolei Yisrael.

With their mesirus nefesh to rise so early and travel from various parts of Eretz Yisrael, and the quiet dignity and nobility with which they conducted themselves, they proved that — unlike the group of rabble-rousers who misappropriated the name for themselves — they are the real women of the Wall.

Joining them in creating a kiddush Hashem were regular mispallelim, several thousand individuals on both sides of the mechitzah. Some come every day, some every Friday, others every Rosh Chodesh. They poured out their hearts in tefillah and connected to their Creator in the same manner as their ancestors have done for generations.

On the other side of the mechitzah was a handful of misguided individuals who, though perhaps dressed in traditional garb, failed to act in a manner befitting Torah Jews.

Then there was a group — numbering fewer than 100 — whose members belong to Nashot HaKotel. Emboldened by a recent court ruling, they came to further a nefarious, broad-ranging agenda, fully aware that their actions would be perceived by the regular mispallelim as provocative and offensive.

The last group that came was the journalists.

There were numerous aspects that members of the fourth estate could — and should — have focused on.

One aspect would have involved doing some basic math and calculating the percentage of women who supported the Women of the Wall and the numbers who heeded the call of Women for the Wall. They could have explored the question of whether a minute minority has the right to act in a manner that is deemed deeply offensive and insensitive to an overwhelming majority. Presumably, even those who are so far left that they are determined to cast away tradition when it comes to establishing local custom, should at least recognize the basic democratic concept of heeding the desires of a majority.

The media could have chosen to look into what inspired so many thousands to cut short their sleep and board buses at a time when most of the country was still in bed. They would have discovered that the concept of emunas tzaddikim runs just as deep — if not even deeper — among women than among men. They could have researched the fact that on this issue, there was a remarkable show of unity among various sectors of religious Jews in Israel.

The media could have chosen to write about why the religious community is taking this matter so much to heart. Much of it would have been new to some of these journalists, but they could have learned a little about what the Kosel means to Torah Jewry. They would be educated about how, wherever they are in the world, Jews turn towards the Makom Hamikdash when they daven. It may be challenging for them to comprehend the deep emotional pain that Jewish women feel when other women arrive at the Kosel in immodest dress, and why they view the donning of talleisos to be a provocation. But they could have reported on these issues nonetheless.

But the mainstream media chose to ignore all these worthy angles and focus solely on the misconduct of a handful of chareidi-looking men.

Haredim Heckle, Harass Women of Wall During Prayer,” read a headline in the Jerusalem Post.

“Israeli Police Protect Women Praying at Western Wall, Arrest 3 Ultra-Orthodox Protesters,” was how the Washington Post put it.

The fact that some 10,000 women gathered peacefully in tefillah was ignored, as reporters made certain to give ample proof  to the many who accuse the mainstream media of widespread anti-chareidi bias.

It would be tempting to suffice with issuing another round of denunciations against this bias, but we would be missing the point.

The lesson that must to be learned from this distorted coverage of a gathering of  Torah Jewry, which is only the most recent in a long string of examples of how distorted the portrayal of Torah Jewry is in the media, is the need for a proactive approach.

More than 40 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Levin, z”l, founding editor of the Hebrew Hamodia, recognized the importance of this issue. “PR is the name of the game,” he argued and proceeded to establish the Mercaz L’hasbarah Datit, which was intended to help the outside world understand  the views and needs of Torah Jewry. With his tragic passing at an early age, this initiative didn’t come to fruition.

Decades later, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, the legendary president of Agudath Israel, founded a similar organization named Am Echad during the last year of his life. Its goal was to correct media misrepresentations of, and promote accurate information about, Orthodox Jews and Judaism. After the passing of Rabbi Sherer, this organization, too, was relatively short-lived.

The concept was an important one back then, and the need has only become more critical with the passage of time. In an age of instant media and reckless bloggers, at a time when any individuals with a computer connection — regardless of their sense of responsibility or notion of reliability — can present themselves as sources of information for the mass media; in an era when self-proclaimed spokespersons do more harm than good, it is incumbent on us to launch a new, concerted effort to bring the vision of Rabbi Levin to reality.

This mission isn’t for the faint-hearted or the inexperienced. Much as we recognize that resources must be appropriated for other basic needs of our community, funds must be raised to make it possible for the best and the brightest experts in the field of public relations to dedicate their time, with the guidance of daas Torah, to help the secular world understand what we are really all about.

Torah Jews would far prefer the tranquility of living our lives away from the limelight and media glare. But as long as our community is being besmirched and our views distorted, we must fight for our rights in a professional and articulate manner.