JERUSALEM — If there’s one thing female journalists covering the trip of Vice President Pence to Israel will remember it is the “special treatment” they received, first by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security detail and second, in their “unique” vantage point while covering Pence's visit to the Western Wall on Tuesday.
At Netanyahu’s office on Monday morning, a visiting female journalist from Finland’s state television was asked to remove her bra during an overly zealous and demeaning security check. When she refused, the journalist — who is of Palestinian descent — was prevented from covering Pence's news conference with Netanyahu.
Then, on Tuesday, female journalists were particularly perturbed to discover that they had been relegated to covering Pence’s spiritual stop at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, from the other side of a fence.
In response to inquiries about the matter, Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement: “Every effort was made to accommodate both female and male journalists while observing the rules in place at the Western Wall.”
The Western Wall — the outer wall of the raised esplanade that is called the Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims — is currently under the authority of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Western Wall Heritage Foundation. According to custom, the plaza is divided by gender, with men praying on one side of a barrier and women on the other.
For Pence's visit to the wall, the foundation set up two platforms side by side straddling the barrier. As Pence prayed on the men’s side, however, it was difficult for some of the female journalists to see above the cameras and microphones held by their male colleagues.
“It was the same situation during President Trump’s visit to the Western Wall in May 2017,” said the foundation in a statement. “We reject any attempt to divert the discussion from the important and moving visit of the US Vice President and his wife at the Western Wall.”
Female journalists covering the event disagreed, however, coining the hashtag #pencefence on Twitter.
Tal Schneider, a prominent Israeli journalist, tweeted: “Separation at the Western Wall. The women stuck in isolation and cannot photograph, work. Women journalists are second-class citizens. The American women photographers are frantically yelling at the representatives of the White House. #PenceFence
Another journalist, Ariane Ménage from i24news, tweeted: “When it's a bit hard to do your job / women journalists forced to stand behind the men at the separation fence at the western wall for Mike Pence's visit #PenceInIsrael #PenceFence.”
The Western Wall has been the site of controversy in recent years as a growing number of Jewish groups, including reform and conservative streams from the United States, have demanded the creation of an egalitarian space to allow for mixed-gender prayer.
Under the management of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, women are not permitted to read aloud from the Torah, or wear prayer shawls or sing there. Joint services with men and women together are also not allowed.
In 2016, Netanyahu’s government agreed on a plan dividing the area into three parts, allowing space for those Jewish groups. But last summer, following dissension from ultra-Orthodox members of his government, Netanyahu reneged on the deal, a move that left many American Jews feeling insulted and abandoned by Israel’s ruling coalition.
Following Pence’s visit and the segregation of the female reporters, Women of the Wall, one of the organizations instrumental in the battle for an egalitarian space, said it was time to challenge the “ultra-Orthodox monopoly of the Western Wall.”
“Today, senior women journalists from Israel and abroad were discriminated against,” the group said in a statement. “Today, they’ve experienced firsthand what happens to a woman who challenges the ultra-Orthodox monopoly of the Western Wall.”
Regarding the female journalist subjected to extreme security measures, Netanyahu’s office issued an apology, saying efforts were made to treat her with respect.
This is not the first time a female journalist attempting to cover a formal event with the Israeli prime minister has been asked to strip. An Al Jazeera journalist was also asked to remove her bra at an event in 2011.
This story has been updated to add details of the reporter denied access.