JERUSALEM — Following outrage by female journalists forced to cover Vice President Pence’s visit to the Western Wall last week from behind a separation fence, the rabbi of the Jewish holy site apologized Monday to prominent Israeli reporter Tal Schneider.
But Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation that runs the sacred site, indicated in a statement to The Washington Post that the situation would not change.
“The plaza is a place of prayer and a synagogue, separation between men and women will remain for every type of event,” the rabbi said. “This is the custom of the place and it will be preserved in the future as well.”
Rabinovitch did say, however, that efforts would be made to improve press coverage for future events but “without compromising the sanctity of the site and its customs.”
The Western Wall is the outer wall of the raised esplanade that is called the Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims. Under the authority of the foundation, the plaza is divided by gender, with men praying on one side of a barrier and women on the other.
For the Pence visit, 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. The U.S. Embassy staff, who were managing the event, were forced to provide chairs for the female journalists to stand on so they could witness what was happening.
Upset by the unequal treatment, frustrated female journalists sent out a blitz of tweets, decrying the fact that women were relegated to the back in 2018.
They coined the hashtag #pencefence.
Schneider, the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli newspaper Globes, who has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, wrote a follow-up letter to the rabbi complaining about the way the women were treated.
“When Pence was done touching the Western Wall, he pulled back and spoke with the rabbi, the entire male entourage was able to see, while the women were stuck on the other side out of view,” Schneider said. “The whole event was not equal, and it was unfair.”
On Monday, Schneider reported that her editor in chief had received a letter from Rabinovitch in which he expressed “regret for the anguish suffered” while she was attempting to cover Pence’s visit. He also said he would be happy to meet with the two to discuss the situation.
After Pence's visit to the Wall and the upset it caused, Alyssa Farah, a spokeswoman for the vice president, said that the U.S. team had made every effort “to accommodate both female and male journalists while observing the rules in place at the Western Wall.”
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, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed on a plan dividing the area into three parts, allowing space for those Jewish groups. But last summer, after 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.