The Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, former refusnik Natan Sharansky, has been charged by Prime-Minister Netanyahu to help find a resolution to the Women of the Wall issue. Sharansky said that the current situation in which, “The Western Wall is a place of conflict and dispute must end, and that it must be rebuilt as a uniting place.” To fully understand and contextualize the issues involved, a bit of history is necessary.
On October of 1988 a group of seventy interdenominational women approached the Western wall plaza In Jerusalem. They walked to the much smaller women’s section of the plaza and began to pray together in a women’s prayer group. All proceeded smoothly until they started to read from a Torah they had brought. First the Ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) women began to vocally abuse them. The noise attracted the attention of Charedi men on the other side of the mechitzah (separation barrier between the sexes) who soon started hurling verbal abuse at the women and intimidating them with violent and disturbing vocal threats and abuse. At that time the women were not physically attacked, although this would soon occur. The women who were participants in these services were, in the words of one of the participants: “both spiritually moved and connected and yet physically afraid” (Susan Alter).
The decision was made to conduct a service every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) in the women’s section. As the “one-off happening” became a continuing fact so did the animosity from the Charedi sector grow in tandem with the respect of the more open-minded and feminist Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora. The physical intimidation reached such epic levels, with heavy steel chairs being thrown and physical assaults, in addition to the hiring of female security guards to drag the women away that the WOW decided to take the State of Israel to court and sue for the right to pray, and read the Torah openly and safely at the Wall.
In her paper titled: “Women’s Human Rights: Dichotomy between Religion and Secularism in Israel,” Professor Frances Raday states that:
The constitutional definition of Israel as a Jewish State is inherently problematic for gender equality: this is because the concept of a Jewish state has been imbued with religious values and gender equality rights clash with religious norms.
The WOW saw their lawsuit as a test case of Israeli civil society and its clash with the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, a protest against religious coercion, the violent suppression and the deprived status of women in Israeli public life. The question they wanted to raise was: To whom does the Wailing Wall belong, to all Israelis or just the Ultra-Orthodox? In addition, they wanted address the issue of; why can’t a believing woman raise her voice in prayer by the sacred Wall? In the words of Rachel one of the members of the WOW:
Our struggle for the equal right of Jewish women’s prayer groups to worship according to their custom at the Western Wall has implications that go far beyond ourselves.
Raday points out that Israel’s Declaration of Independence was one of the earliest constitutional documents in the world to include sex as a group classification in with a guarantee of equality in social and political rights. The Declaration states:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…
The dichotomy between religious and secular norms becomes apparent when the Supreme Court grapples with issues, such as the WOW case, which impinges on religious sensitivities. Whilst there is nothing halachicly wrong with the women’s only prayer group at the Wall, there are political religio-social considerations that affect the court’s ability to decide on petitions such as this in a manner that would be consistent with such a body in a democratic country, with a separation of church and state.
The first case that was brought to the Supreme court once the WOW decided to resort to legal recourse was; “Hoffman I vs. the State of Israel,” in 1994. The court ruled in favour of the Ultra-Orthodox Charedi parties and rejected the petition to pray in a group and read aloud from the Torah. In a second suit (“Hoffman II”) in 1998 the ruling was overturned, and the court directed the Israeli government to facilitate the free and safe access of the WOW within six months. There was immediate uproar within the Charedi world that demanded that the Wall be declared an Orthodox Synagogue and all non-Orthodox services be banned, with jail sentences of up to seven years meted out to offenders. Five years later, many claim due to external political pressure, the court once again “zig-zagged”, and by a five to four decision in 2003 reversed their earlier decision and recommended that the women pray in an alternative site; at Robinsons’ Arch.
Sharansky essentially proposes to rename Robinson’s Arch and connect it to the Plaza, and not to charge admission as an archeological site but to allow free access as an alternative pluralistic site of prayer. Even though it seems a brilliant and simple solution that has already garnered widespread support, it will take years to achieve, mainly because of Ultra-Orthodox intransigence. With our history it should be incumbent upon us Jews not to fight over what we do not agree on, but rather to celebrate what we have in common. Rabbi Kook stated that the Temple would only be rebuilt through Ahavat Hinam (Causeless love). The Jewish Agency said in a statement released this week, that there is,
An urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.