Hardline transportation minister scrambles after embrace from women’s group

Hardline transportation minister scrambles after embrace from women’s group

Women of the Wall praises Bezalel Smotrich for ‘warm welcome’ of train terminal tefillin stand for women, prompting far-right criticism of him

A Women of the Wall member helps a woman lay tefillin at Tel Aviv's Savidor train terminal, February 17, 2020. (Courtesy Women of the Wall)
A Women of the Wall member helps a woman lay tefillin at Tel Aviv's Savidor train terminal, February 17, 2020. (Courtesy Women of the Wall)

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the religiously conservative head of the National Union faction, denied Monday that he had helped the pluralistic women’s group Women of the Wall set up a tefillin laying stand at a train terminal in Tel Aviv.

The denial came after Women of the Wall thanked Smotrich profusely in a press release earlier in the day for his “warm welcome” in permitting their tefillin stand, which violates ministry rules against advocacy installations in public transportation facilities.

Earlier this month, social media accounts intended for reporting problems on Israel’s public transportation network saw photographs posted there of Chabad tefillin stands, along with posts urging commuters to report such stands to Israel Railways inspectors.

Smotrich responded to the apparent campaign by vowing that “as long as I’m transportation minister, it is permitted and even desirable to open Jewish and tefillin-laying stands at train stations (and not only there). If you try to set one up and encounter trouble, call me and with God’s help we’ll deal with it.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper in Jerusalem, November 11, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

He accused the activists seeking to oust the Chabad tefillin stands of “dealing in anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews.”

In a letter last week to Smotrich, Women of the Wall complained that his support for Jewish ritual stands was meant “for men only,” and asked for his help setting up a booth of their own that allowed women to carry out the tefillin-laying ritual.

WoW set up a tefillin stand at Tel Aviv’s Savidor train station on Monday morning, but were promptly asked to leave by station officials. They contacted Transportation Ministry officials and Smotrich’s office, and were allowed back in, the group said.

“We were thrilled to discover that the transportation minister, faced with this question, responded with a warm welcome to a tefillin stand by Women of the Wall,” said the group’s director, Yochi Rapaport. “We invite the ministers and heads of the Yamina party” — of which Smotrich’s National Union faction is part — “to come visit our stand and fulfill together with us this important mitzvah.”

Illustrative: A Chabad member helping a Jewish youth put on tefillin. (Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker/CCBY-SA)

The announcement by the women’s group, which came just two weeks before election day, drew rebukes from the extremist right-wing Otzma Yehudit party, which is competing with Yamina for right-wing voters. In a statement, Otzma Yehudit said Smotrich’s alleged openness to a pluralistic religious stand showed he was trying to appear “kosher” to the centrist Blue and White party, in order to join a unity coalition led by Blue and White after the March 2 election.

“As always with Yamina, the job and the ministry are the end that justifies any and all means, including appeasing the Reform and the leftists,” Otzma Yehudit accused.

Smotrich’s office rushed to deny Women of the Wall’s claim he had helped the group, insisting in a statement he was too busy to deal with the group’s “provocations” and praising himself for sidestepping the “public relations trap” the group had set for him.

“Simply false,” Smotrich’s statement declared of WoW’s claim he had helped them.

“The minister is working night and day to solve the nation’s transportation crisis, to get Israel’s citizens out of the traffic jams, and to give them better service,” his office said. “He doesn’t have time for provocations. In a democratic country every citizen is allowed to stir provocations, as long as it is done within the bounds of the law and doesn’t disrupt public order.

“The minister shares in Women of the Wall’s distress after they tried and failed to cause a provocation, as they were counting on his cooperation and on him falling into their public relations trap.”

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