Kotelgate for JC by Jenni Frazer May 10 2022
It’s not hard to wonder whether Yaakov Hagoel, the pro tem chairman of the Jewish Agency, has an evil twin, who is also called Yaakov Hagoel and is chairman of the World Zionist Organisation. As the old joke goes, they are never seen in the same room at the same time.
But certainly only someone named Yaakov Hagoel is best placed to solve the mystery of what exactly happened at the Western Wall this week, when fights, both verbal and physical, broke out between the Women of the Wall and groups of young women from Orthodox seminaries, the latter apparently brought in under the auspices of the WZO in order to disrupt the Women of the Wall’s prayers.
So volatile were these encounters that Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, wrote to Yaakov Hagoel of the World Zionist Organisation about the “violent harassment” of the Women of the Wall, who have been striving for equality of prayer at the Kotel since 1988. Van der Zyl asked Hagoel for an explanation: because, it is claimed, the seminary students were actually brought by bus to Jerusalem, buses booked and paid for by two departments of the WZO, the grandly-titled “Department of Periphery and Diaspora Affairs” and the Department of Resource,Development and Community Relations.
Noting that the events at the Kotel — what we might call Kotelgate — were close to falling into the category of Sinat Chinam, or baseless hatred — van der Zyl asked for an explanation from Hagoel and an assurance that nothing similar would recur in the future. Not unreasonably, she wrote: “The Kotel is a holy place for Jews of all denominations and its sanctity must be respected, along with the right of all Jews to pray there. I am extremely disturbed that the WZO, a national institution with such an illustrious history, would have engaged in an action which is so clearly antithetical to its values.”
There is certainly no doubt, from the video evidence, that some of the young women shouting and chanting against the Women of the Wall, were waving World Zionist Organisation flags, which may well have been supplied on the buses in which they travelled to Jerusalem, since it is hard to imagine such flags being stashed away in seminary dormitories, ready for use at a moment’s notice.
The Women of the Wall undoubtedly believed that the WZO underwrote the physical presence of the Orthodox women students, and complained bitterly to Yaakov Hagoel of the WZO to say so.
However, the WZO insisted that it “did not fund buses or any other aspect of the prayer service of young haredi Orthodox girls at the Kotel. There were a few flags of the WZO at the service and we approved the co-operation with these organisations — but there was no funding involved. We are looking into the claims of both sides of violence”.
Hagoel, in his capacity as chair of the WZO, met leaders of the Women of the Wall and, according to them, “refused to take responsibility for the violent incident… and asked for ‘evidence of violence’ directed at us, as if the photos, complaints filed with the police and the detention of one of the violent girls during the incident were not enough”.
A few days later, however, the Yaakov Hagoel who is acting chair of the Jewish Agency sent a letter to its board of governors in response to questions from some of them as to exactly what was going on at the Kotel. He wrote: “We want to be sure to share our sentiments directly with you. We condemn the behaviour displayed in the strongest possible terms. Such conduct is against the foundational values of the Jewish Agency and runs completely against every aspect of our ethos and ethics.”
He added that “we understand that the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) has launched an inquiry into the incident and we eagerly await its findings… Needless to say, a strong response is essential to these highly disturbing events. We anticipate receiving the results of the WZO inquiry shortly and will have a better idea of what happened, why and how it can be prevented moving forward.”
I have a vision of Hagoel’s head, spinning round like something out of The Omen, as he writes to himself condemning “highly disturbing events” for which he accepted no responsibility only days earlier. Either he knows what is going on or he doesn’t; neither unsavoury answer makes him fit to head the WZO or the Jewish Agency.
There is an argument, of course, that in 2022, with a government in place, there is no necessity for either inflated, salary-chomping body, but that’s a discussion for another day. Meanwhile, as the rows over Kotelgate escalate, everyone in Israel will be called Yaakov Hagoel, responsible to no-one.