Women of the Wall, one year later
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Women of the Wall, one year later

It’s been one year since Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu’s coalition government reneged on a deal to provide a designated place for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

King Herod did not live to see the wall, the retaining support built to hold the Temple Mount, completed. It may be that Anat Hoffman may not see her aspirations for the Wall completed, either.

Ms. Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall as well as head of the Israel Religious Action Center, has been leading efforts to allow women to hold prayer and Torah services at the Western Wall for nearly 20 years. Since 1988, the group has faced a legal battle for recognition of their right to pray here. Their presence is deemed offensive by Orthodox worshippers at the site, because many Orthodox Jews object to the concept of women making up a minyan, wearing tallitot, or reading from — even holding — a Torah. There have been many court proceedings to settle the issue.

On June 13, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, 30 members of Women of the Wall assembled without publicity in the women’s section and held morning services with a Torah they brought in. The next day, as is the custom on Rosh Chodesh, some 100 women gathered. This time, they were met with busloads of charedi children who had been brought to the site not to worship but to protest.

These detractors have been increasingly disruptive each month, as adult women and yeshiva girls are prompted to scream, shriek, and blow loud whistles during tefillot (prayers). The security force at the wall — that is, the unit designated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, not the police department — has been negligent in providing protection for the women. One video taken a year ago shows an Orthodox woman grabbing a woman from the progressive prayer group in a headlock, with the security guard standing there passively.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the organization the Israeli government designated to maintain and manage the Kotel and the contiguous plaza and tunnel, has been controlled by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who, as chairman of the foundation, also has been the official rabbi of the Wall since 1995. He has called the actions of the Women of the Wall “an unbearable provocation” and earlier had authorized the arrest of at least five female worshippers for wearing tallitot. Yet, he wrote in a 2010 article in the Jerusalem Post, “Since its sovereignty was applied to the Old City, the State of Israel maintains a clear policy of tolerance and freedom of worship.” (In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI came to the Western Wall. Rabbi Rabinowitz requested that he remove his cross; the pontiff declined. Ultimately, the Israeli diplomatic office overruled the rabbi.)

The Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel) hold monthly prayer services on Rosh Chodesh exclusively for women, so that Orthodox members, who comprise more than a quarter of the participants, may fully participate, according to Elizabeth Kirshner, the organization’s communications director.

Women have been subject to body searches to prevent clandestine smuggling of Torahs.

Until 2010, Women of the Wall would pray Shacharit and Hallel at the Kotel and conduct Torah reading at Robinson’s Arch, further south of the Kotel plaza. But Rabbi Rabinowitz implemented regulations preventing women from gaining access to Torah scrolls at the Western Wall. There are 100 Torah scrolls for men’s use at the Kotel, but none for women, and they have been forbidden to bring in Torahs of their own; Anat Hoffman has been arrested for doing so. 

This Catch-22 results in a discriminatory practice that keeps Torah scrolls out of women’s hands. Women have been subject to body searches to prevent clandestine Torah smuggling; in April 2013, women were arrested at the Kotel. But in a court decision two weeks later, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that their arrest was inappropriate and their actions were not unlawful.

Then, in January 2017, the Israeli High Court ruled that if the government of Israel could not find “good cause” to prohibit women reading from the Torah in prayer services at the Kotel within 30 days, women could do so. The Netanyahu government committed to honor the court’s decision. Then, in a stunning reversal on June 25, 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly reneged on this agreement.

In January 2018, the High Court ruled that the state had to report on progress toward the complaint filed by WOW by April 15. Yet now, more than 60 days beyond that deadline, there has been no response from the government. “The Court is once again dragging the process along instead of moving forward swiftly to find a real solution,” Kirshner explained.

In an interview with Rabbi Donniel Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in 2013, Anat Hoffman expressed her position. “The problem is with the secular Knesset, the secular police, the secular courts; with the secular institutions which have decided to give (Rabbi Rabinowitz) sole and complete” control over all aspects of prayer at the Kotel.

The ceremony installing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, with the welcome inclusion of far-right Christian pastors, demonstrated that Netanyahu prefers the rigorous support of 80 million evangelical Christians to the tepid support of those American Jews who are critical of his policies. Moreover, with the violent protests by Gazan Palestinians on the border with Israel last month, American Jews, recognizing Hamas’s malevolent intent, by and large have rallied to Israel’s defense. Netanyahu therefore faces almost no negative political consequences for ignoring the pleas and arguments for equal treatment under the law.

Religious and diaspora affairs Minister Naftali Bennett was absent for the June 25, 2017, vote rescinding the agreement. Bennett, a millionaire as a result of the sale of his high tech company, is an Orthodox Jew, and has demonstrated an unwillingness to provide a space, or even better security, for Women of the Wall, which has made repeated attempts to meet with Bennett in order to negotiate a plan for pluralistic and women’s prayer at the Kotel. He has consistently avoided and canceled meetings with no explanation. His plan for a pluralistic space at Robinson’s Arch was, in Anat Hoffman’s term, a paltry sun-deck, a wooden platform that does not meet their need as a women’s (not a mixed) prayer group. Bennett erected the platform surreptitiously in the night, without any formal approval. (Minister Bennett failed to respond to my repeated attempts for comment for this article.)

Prime Minister Netanyahu had promised that physical upgrades to the Robinson’s Arch area would be made to make the site more suitable. To date, the site is still unusable.

Gideon Aronoff, executive director at Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, has been outspoken in defense of egalitarian prayer at the wall. “You have a state that is Jewish and democratic that is having difficulties on both the Jewish part and the democratic part.” While he is proud that the Masorti movement is well represented within the Women of the Wall (one third of its members are Conservative/Masorti affiliated, he stated), Aronoff acknowledges that “Women of the Wall was the driving force that launched this entire activity.”

However, Aronoff points out, Masorti is instrumental in making the Azarat Yisroel, the egalitarian prayer space, vibrant and active. “Every single day, people are conducting egalitarian prayer at the Azarat Yisroel site.” But this is not to be confused with a designated place for women-only minyanim at the Kotel.

It is evident that the restrictions on egalitarian and women-only prayer in a public space is discriminatory. Kirschner, Neshot Hakotel’s communications director, pointed out that “there is no ‘designated prayer space’ for us established at the Kotel on a regular basis.” There is a space carved out by “the metal barriers (the ‘cage,’ as we call it) that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will typically set up and demand we enter and remain in for the duration of our prayer and claim that we must agree to ‘waive our right to protection’ by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation guards if we refuse to enter. It is usually set up on the very margin, a significant distance from the Kotel itself.

“We should not have to choose between our dignity and our safety.”

The issue of accessibility at the Kotel for all Jews is part of a larger struggle. The rites of life passage are affected as well, with control of weddings and conversions under the designated management of the right-wing Orthodox. Tales of Israeli soldiers killed in battle defending the country who were excluded from Jewish cemeteries are galling. Rabbi Michael Boyden of Hod Hasharon’s Reform congregation Kehilat Yonatan expressed his frustration with the Heritage Foundation’s discriminatory policies. “In the Six Day War, 182 Israeli soldiers died taking back Jerusalem and liberating the Wall, and not one was charedi,” he said.

There are three elements that are important to enabling non-Orthodox services at the Western Wall: accessibility, visibility, and independence. The Wall is, after all, not a synagogue. It is a holy site — regarded as Judaism’s holiest — and should not be in the control of any one single faction.

Last Shabbat fell on the 17th of Tammuz, the day commemorating the Romans’ breach of the Temple walls, which led, three weeks later, to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Our tradition holds that the calamity was a result of baseless hatred among Jewish factions. Perhaps it also serves as a metaphor for the violence and antipathy that takes place at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh.

Jews worldwide take pride in proclaiming that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. If this trope means anything, it must mean respecting the rights of the individual in the face of authoritarianism. As Elizabeth Kirschner told me, “we are fighting for all Jews to be able to come here and feel that they belong here, too.”

Norman Levin is a retired synagogue executive director. He also was the marketing director at the  Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

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