For well over a decade, I ran a media relations office in Jerusalem on behalf of Agudath Israel of America. I used to think I did a pretty good job. Not any more.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni have run a multipronged response to the well-oiled publicity machine that is Women of the Wall. Despite spotting WoW a 24-year head start, they have managed in that brief period to completely reset the terms of the public debate. And they have done so while raising families and running their own businesses, and without taking a penny in salaries.
A successful campaign to change public opinion today is not a matter of writing op-eds at a stately pace or putting together a documentary of traditional women speaking about what the Kosel means to them — all of which I once did. It is more like a rapid-play chess game. There is no respite. One has to keep changing tactics in response to shifts on the chessboard. An understanding of modern media and the ability it provides to reach large numbers of people quickly is absolutely essential.
Responses must be instantaneous. When police put a cordon around the Old City on Sunday, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, in order to allow WoW to conduct their rites at the Kosel, Leah Aharoni, one of the founders of Women For the Wall (W4W), already had a piece up on the Jerusalem Post site within hours pointing out the heavy price of WoW’s “freedom” to worship as they wished — i.e., large numbers of Jewish men and women who wanted to daven at the Kosel that morning were unable to do so and school children from outside the Old City were not able to get to classes.
After the Old City was closed down on their behalf, WoW complained that they had been “caged in” at the Kosel. Ronit Peskin countered immediately at the Times of Israel that placed in a “VIP lounge” would be a more accurate description. Peskin was denied entry to that “lounge” to talk to the reporters who were there with WoW.
When WoW PR director Shira Pruce accused W4W of responsibility for a rise in violence against WoW since they began their activities, Aharoni again pounced within hours. She pointed out on the Times of Israel Web site that WoW has been complaining of violence against them for decades and W4W came into existence just two months ago. She quoted extensively from such complaints both new and ancient. (Part of the media battle consists of knowing everything your opponents are saying or have ever said.) In short, Pruce had conveniently forgotten all past complaints in order to delegitimize a group of women who have become a real thorn in WoW’s side.
Aharoni was able to point to videos of herself, Ronit Peskin, and a third member of the group, Jenni Menashe, telling chareidi young men at the Kosel to stay away from the WoW group. One of those videos had already been shown on Israel Channel 2 News and remarked upon by Shmuel Rosner, a prominent Israeli journalist.
Aharoni and Peskin have been able to exploit WoW’s “Palestinian problem.” Just as the Palestinians consistently present one message in Arabic and quite another in Hebrew, WoW has multiple — and often contradictory — messages, depending on the audience they are addressing. At times, they present themselves as seeking to liberate observant women from the patriarchy and expose them to feminist religious practice; other times they are ethereal spiritual beings, deeply moved by the Kosel, and acting well within the bounds of halachah. To raise large sums of money and provide the American Reform movement with a cause around which to rally, WoW must present their worship as the civil rights struggle of our time and raise as much ruckus as possible; at other times, they proclaim their desire to be just be left alone
But contradictory messages can be a problem if someone else is paying close attention to everything you say.
W4W’s efforts are taking place on multiple fronts: in the Knesset lobbying MKs, writing op-eds for the local press — Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Maariv; being interviewed by the local and foreign media –— Army Radio, Channel 2, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, the Forward, Le Monde, German TV, and a wide variety of Jewish religious sites; maintaining contacts with religious MKs and city councilors; connecting to Jewish women abroad concerned about the sanctity of the Kosel (via Webcam last Rosh Chodesh); writing explanatory materials on feminism for potential baalei teshuvah; and debating WoW in a variety of public forums.
The latter must be particularly galling to WoW, who has had the world media eagerly lapping up their “freedom narrative” for 20 years, with no one to counter it. Suddenly, they find themselves before the international press at Jerusalem’s Media Central together with W4W, and the media is fascinated to see an earnest, non-strident counterview.
At the recent Media Central event, the foreign press was shocked when WoW refused to stay in the room during Ronit and Leah’s presentation, and fascinated to see some of their stereotypes upended, such as when W4W’s Leah Aharoni said there is something profoundly misogynistic about assuming that prayer is only meaningful when it apes that of men. When asked why her group rejects Robinson’s Arch, WoW’s Peggy Cidor responded that it is too reminiscent of destruction. A German reporter asked her, “But isn’t it called the Wailing Wall?” Facing pointed questions for the first time, the WoW representatives became testy.
Just contemplating W4W’s whirlwind of activity makes me feel old. And delighted that such talented young women appeared out of nowhere to carry the banner for preservation of the kedushah of the Kosel.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.