Women journalists covering US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit Tuesday to the Western Wall criticized what they called discrimination after being forced to stand behind men, and behind a barrier, under rules enforced by Jewish ultra-Orthodox authorities.
The Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, is governed by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment and women and men must visit it separately.
The rule was applied to journalists gathering to cover Pence’s visit, effectively forcing women to stand behind men, leaving them with worse access.
A podium erected for journalists to cover the visit included a barrier between the male and female sides of the wall, with women journalists forced to stand behind it. After complaints, a tarp covering the podium was removed, allowing women to stand on chairs to be able to see over male journalists.
Some women journalists at the site posted on Twitter about the separation, using the hashtag #PenceFence.
“I feel like a second-class citizen,” Tal Schneider, a journalist with the Globes financial newspaper said. “We are not allowed to do our work.”
Schneider said she was told by US officials that the rules were required by the ultra-Orthodox authorities at the site.
— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) January 23, 2018
US officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation told Israel’s Channel 10 that it had made an effort to grant “maximum accessibility” to journalists of both sexes and said it “rejected any attempt to divert the discussion away from the important and emotional visit of the US vice president and his wife to the Western Wall.”
Pence, whose visit to the Western Wall lasted all of 10 minutes, read a short prayer from the Book of Psalms, placed a note in the Wall, and lay his hand upon the ancient stones. He then signed the Wall’s guestbook before heading out.
“It is my great honor to pray here at this sacred place. God bless the Jewish people and God bless the State of Israel always,” he wrote.
The site — the holiest place where Jews can pray — is in the Old City, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War, but considered by most of the international community to be occupied Palestinian territory
The holy site has long seen controversy over the separation between women and men.
In January 2016, the government successfully negotiated a deal with the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall group and the Jewish Agency for Israel to provide a permanent, expanded egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
But six months later, under pressure from its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the government froze the deal.
The cabinet’s decision was met with widespread dismay from liberal groups and Diaspora Jews who have since petitioned the Supreme Court for the state to create the permanent space for egalitarian prayer.
Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, compared the reporters’ plight to their own battles with the Wall’s Haredi authorities.
“Today, senior women journalists from Israel and abroad were discriminated against,” she wrote.
“Today, they’ve experienced first-hand what happens to a woman who challenges the ultra-Orthodox monopoly of the Western Wall,” Hoffman added. “Now they too know, that a woman who strives for gender equality in Israel has to bravely face the heart of discrimination at the center of gravity.”
JTA contributed to this report