The story of Women of the Wall (WoW) begins in the United States. It is now an Israeli affair, attracting considerable attention in the American Jewish community as well as in major American media. Even though the political and legal mechanics of any resolution to this problem will take place in Israel, the matter will be resolved in the United States.
The genesis of Jewish women’s empowerment, and their seeking authority to congregate as a group and to pray communally, began in the U.S. feminist (and later Jewish feminist) movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Thereafter, in 1988, a conference of Jewish women met in Jerusalem. Rivka Haut, one of the leaders of the Orthodox tefillah group movement in New York, persuaded several of the attendees to go with her to the Kotel. They borrowed a Torah scroll, went into the section reserved for women, put on tallitot, and began to sing, pray, and read from the Torah. Some of the women who went with them were Israeli attendees at the conference. Among the Israelis was Anat Hoffman, who is now an active and vocal leader of the Women of the Wall in Israel. At that moment, the alliance between North American and Israeli women concerned with equal access to religious life in Israel was born.
The women who went to the Wall knew that their action was unexpected and unorthodox. But they thought the State of Israel would be on their side; they expected that if some trouble or resistance took place, Israeli secular law, including its law enforcement apparatus, the police, would support them.
What made them expect support? Over the past century, Israel has been portrayed as a place upholding gender equality (“Israeli women serve in the army”) and the free exercise of religion. These women — nurtured by the American values of pluralism and the growing support, even among the Orthodox, of prayer groups for women — saw themselves as pioneers in the pursuit of modernizing Judaism in Israel.
The State of Israel, on the other hand — its society, laws, and culture — has actually had a rather uneven relationship with gender equality (Israeli feminism was just beginning to reawaken on the heels of the American women’s movement). And the state’s understanding of religion has been fundamentally different from the American Jewish conception. In Israel, religion is mostly an Orthodox practice controlled by Orthodox rabbis.
In the 1980s, Israeli society was divided between a large secular camp that was either indifferent or hostile to religion and a small Orthodox camp wedded to a conservative tradition. The Reform movement was barely recognized, and the Conservative movement was treated as an offshoot of the Reform movement. Most Israelis in the late 1980s had little empathy for any form of Jewish worship — including women’s prayer groups.
Since 1967, when Israel gained control of the Kotel, the site has been construed as an Orthodox synagogue. The plaza in front of the Kotel was divided by a mechitzah, and an Orthodox rabbi was vested with authority to administer the area.
The rabbi of the Kotel, as well as the worshippers, men and women, were utterly stunned by the initial visits of Women of the Wall. They felt that outsiders were bringing heretical behavior to the holy site. They refused to entertain the idea that some of these women were Orthodox (albeit Modern Orthodox), and that halakhically they were within the four corners of Jewish law.
Since their initial forays to pray at the Kotel, the women of WoW have been met with considerable and ugly violence. The police did not come to their rescue. The Israeli government, in need of Orthodox political support domestically, wanted the women to go away.
The women, some of them veterans of the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States, were familiar with civic action and mobilization. In the United States, an organization called the International Committee of the Women of the Wall (ICWOW) was established. In Israel, Anat Hoffman, along with other activists, such as Bonna Devora Haberman,
established an Israeli WoW organization.
In the 1990s, Israel’s High Court of Justice was actively developing a jurisprudence of rights (following the American example of the Warren Court); therefore, WoW had reason to believe that the court would recognize their right to pray at the Kotel.1 Striving to be modest and accommodating, the group asked only for permission to pray on Rosh Chodesh, once a month, at 7 a.m. for about two hours. However, the group did not take into consideration three factors: first, the power of Orthodoxy in Israel; second, the depth and extent of gender inequality in Israel (the issue of WoW looked too exotic to most Israelis, even trivial); and finally, the High Court’s reluctance to spend its capital on this issue.
At first, and to some extent still today, the Israeli public viewed Women of the Wall as either American or “Reform” — that is, as a group of outsiders. And the American Jewish establishment seemed reluctant to come to the group’s aid, which would mean exposing Israel as a state that excludes women from its holy sites that are sacred to all Jews, and a state that tolerates police violence against women.
Over the course of almost 15 years, Israel’s High Court of Justice has issued three opinions. In each, Anat Hoffman was the petitioner. In each opinion, the court urged the government to accommodate the women, but it did not go as far as ordering the government to let the women pray as a group. The government established several commissions, all composed of men, and each one dragged its feet. Eventually, one of the commissions recommended that the group could be allowed to pray, but only at an adjacent area known as Robinson’s Arch (an archeological garden close to the Wall).
Over the past several years, the Israelis involved with WoW have launched a social media campaign. They developed an inviting website that is frequented by women from around the world. They have a newsletter and a Facebook page, and they are on Twitter. They bombard the Israeli government with petitions, and they leverage their allies in the United States. For example, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States recently, the WoW newsletter asked its subscribers to sign a petition asking the prime minister: “Why is it that my daughter cannot have her bat mitzvah at the Kotel?” How can the prime minister insist that “we are one people, one religion” when Orthodox rabbis deny young girls a bat mitzvah at the Kotel, treating the ritual as heresy? The petition touched the hearts of many American Jews.
Today, WoW is supported by all denominations, and they are leveraging more pressure against the Israeli government to resolve the issue. As the women of WoW gained attention, they became more willing to take greater risks. Last year, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the police detained some women at the Kotel. Photos of a woman who had been taken into policy custody while wrapped in a tallit were disseminated over the Internet. In the past few months, members of Women of the Wall, emboldened by the support they have received abroad, and by the fact that social media enables them to communicate events in real time, have begun appearing at the Wall in greater numbers. Among those attending are Israeli women who, until recently, were not interested in this matter and women from abroad who experience the matter as a violation of their rights.
The movement is gaining momentum and support. In April 2013, Judge Moshe Sobel of the District Court of Jerusalem stated that restraining orders against women trying to pray at the Kotel were illegal. He held that group prayer is not in violation of the concept of “minhag hamakom” (custom of the place) because this concept should be interpreted as secular, pluralistic, and national rather than as a strictly religious concept.2 As of this writing, Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett is negotiating a compromise prepared by Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel (as
representative of the Jewish people) to resolve this issue. Netanyahu is eager to resolve the issue because American public opinion is becoming increasingly hostile toward the obstruction of women’s prayer. The recent appointment of Tzipi Livni as minister of justice (to replace the religious and conservative Yaacov Neeman) also helps the movement.
Technically, the fate of Women of the Wall is in the hands of Israeli decision makers. Yet these decision makers cannot but feel the heat coming from the United States. Any effort to sacrifice these women will risk raising the discomfort of American Jewry. The courage to introduce change, and the willingness to grant gender equality, are nurtured and strengthened by most American Jews, both men and women. If they continue to voice their unhappiness at the fact that Jewish women are not allowed to pray as a group at the Wall, the Israeli government will feel the need to accommodate them. It is in this sense that a story that began in the United States will end in the United States, even though the subject matter is the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Diaspora Jews will thus gain a voice in determining how Israel administers the places sacred to all Jews. Yet, while they win this concession, they will lose their ability to claim that they support Israel as a state, regardless of its policies. Here, they must take a stand on the substance of policy and acknowledge that Israel is sometimes wrong, and that criticism is sometimes appropriate and healthy. It may well bring about a new stage in the evolving relations between Israel and world Jewry, perhaps even a maturity we have never witnessed before.
1 WoW was represented by the feminist Israeli attorney Frances Raday.
2 See Pnina Lahav, Women of the Wall: A Temporary but Meaningful Milestone, Hamishpat Online: Human Rights – Insight Into Recent Judgments 9 | June 2013 http://www.colman.ac.il/research/research_institute/katedra_HumanRights/Psika/Documents/9/9_june_2013_3_Lahav_EN.pdf