News that four women were arrested at the Kotel this morning for wearing tallitot shook me like the blast of a shofar. It was a clarion call to respond to injustice against Jews that occurred within the gates of Jerusalem. Not only do these arrests betray the ethical drive of Judaism and the promise of a Jewish homeland, they violate the international human rights laws that were written in the blood of the Jewish people, by the Jewish people.
Israeli police officers arrested these four women for no crime other than practicing Judaism. The arrests were unlawful.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is part of Israeli law, guarantees every person the right to freedom of religion. That right includes the freedom to adopt the religious beliefs one chooses and to manifest those beliefs in public worship. These four Jewish women had the right to practice their beliefs by wearing tallitot at the Western Wall, without fear of arrest or intimidation.
Freedom of religion can be limited if necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or the morals or fundamental rights of others. Some limitation on the freedom of women to pray at the Kotel is possibly necessary to protect the rights of haredi men to pray there according to their custom. Under this rationale, the mehitza (partition) that separates men and women is a valid limitation on women’s freedom to pray at the Kotel. But a tallit in the women’s section cannot infringe on freedom of religion on the other side of the mehitza.
As for the protection of public safety or order, a tallit on a woman’s shoulders poses no threat that would justify the woman’s arrest. Civilized nations do not arrest potential victims of criminal acts for instigating the criminals.
Arresting a woman for wearing a tallit in the women’s section at the Western Wall is not a necessary limitation on her freedom of religion; it is a violation of her human rights.
Furthermore, these arrests violate any number of anti-discrimination laws. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) demands that women be able to exercise their freedom of religion on an equal basis with men. The CEDAW provisions, which form part of Israeli law, mirror similar clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As we enter the month of Elul, a Jewish time of reflection, we find ourselves at an opportune moment to question how the Jewish state, established to protect the rights of Jews to practice Judaism freely, can put four Jews in handcuffs for wearing tallitot. Every morning, when the shofar sounds, let its thunder remind us of the four women who, for fulfilling a mitzvah, came to fill the back of a police car.