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Praying for equality at the Western Wall

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The stories of the Old Testament are interwoven with female heroines who were active participants in all aspects of life. It seems that Jewish ‘modern’ ultra-orthodox (this phrase itself an oxymoron) groups would like to exclude women from the public arena in Israel, reversing progress made on gender equality in Israel. One of the highest profile tussles is taking place at the Western Wall in the heart of Old City Jerusalem, where liberal Jewish women demand their right to lead collective prayers read from the Torah (Old Testament) wearing praying shawls; rituals customarily associated with men.

Israeli law which prohibits the discrimination or exclusion of women, in both the public sphere and employment, is either poorly applied, if not ignored completely.

Yossi Mekelberg

In recent weeks the feud between the ultra-Orthodox, led by the Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz and the Kotel Women (Kotel is the Hebrew name for the Western Wall) has been escalating. Enforcing a ten-year-old ruling by the Supreme Court, which banned women from chanting from the Torah, reciting certain prayers in public, or wearing the praying shawls, the police once again detained five of the leaders of the Kotel Women for questioning last week. Since their activity is public knowledge, it seemed more an attempt to intimidate them than an investigation.

Whatever the logical merits for or against women having an equal role in religious life in Israel, this recent incident epitomises a much broader rupture in Israeli society between religious and secular, particularly surrounding gender issues. The recent Israeli elections in January highlighted the strong division that currently exists between those who perceive the Jewish state as a more secular entity preserving Jewish values and culture in a more modern context; and those who envisage a halacic (Jewish Law) state, in which the state would adopt and apply their interpretation of the religious law.

Defining ‘Jewishness’

From its inception, Israel struggled to define its Jewishness, and this means in a modern state, especially one which was founded on semi-socialist ideals. Recent decades, saw the emergence of messianic Judaism which channels its energy largely into building and expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, and increasing its numbers and political influence of the ultra-Orthodox community. Both developments gradually changed the discourse in Israeli society and saw growing influence of Jewish clerics over Israeli society and politics. The rise of parties such as Shas and the Jewish Home are the political manifestation of this phenomenon. Consequently, their grip on everyday issues such as citizenship, marriages and divorces, education, transport, and even funerals is increasing constantly. Despite the massive influx of mostly non-religious immigrants in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union to Israel, the trend of compromising civil rights via religious legislation and customs has not been contained. Attitudes towards women are of particular concern.

The role of women in Israeli society and the growing demands by religious leaders, to exclude them from the public sphere, underlines the depth of the secular-religious friction in Israel. Whereas the struggle of the Western Wall Women to exercise their natural right to worship in the same way as men attracts ample domestic and international media attention, it’s only part of the story.

On the bus

Regrettably, Israeli law which prohibits the discrimination or exclusion of women, in both the public sphere and employment, is either poorly applied, if not ignored completely. On certain bus routes women are only allowed to sit in certain parts of the bus and if there is no place available in that section, they are asked to get off the bus. On other occasions women were attacked, as it was alleged that their dress was not modest enough. Preventing women from singing in public, as it is regarded as sinful for men to listen to their voice, is another form of discrimination. This trend also penetrated the Israeli army, with religious soldiers demanding to be separated from women during events and refusing to listen to their singing.

Worse still is the exclusion of female representation in the state body that appoints rabbinical judges, especially as these judges are going to rule on family matters which affect women. In addition marketing campaigns are increasingly removing images of women from their advertisements in order to avoid ‘offending’ religious men, fearing that Rabbis would order their followers to boycott products and services which use images of women in their campaigns.

Interestingly enough, concerns were raised from an unexpected source. Jewish communities around the world particularly in North America, where most Jews belong to Liberal and Reform movements, see this trend in Israeli society, as threat to their legitimacy. To make things worse, a number of the women detained by the Israeli police near the Western Wall were female American Rabbis and members of their congregation in the United States. The support of these communities is regarded by Israel as essential in its relationship with the American administration, especially at a time when potential friction with the Americans on the Peace Process front appears increasingly likely. In an unprecedented show of support for the Wailing Wall Women, a group of more than 100 American Jewish protesters gathered recently outside the Israeli embassy in Washington. Similar protests took place also in other cities in the U.S. where Jewish leaders expressed their dismay over the way the issue was handled.

This could have been a catalyst for starting the process to find a compromise based on the principles of ‘access, equality and unity’. The suggested solution will include extending hours of prayers and the area used for praying around to the Western Wall. This might in return upset Muslim leaders in Jerusalem, who are highly suspicious of any Israeli change of the status-quo in the area of Haram al-Shariff, especially changes which involve new construction, as this compromise suggests. Hence any solution should take into account that this site is revered by both Muslims and Jews alike.

Once again this latest episode exposed how delicate the nature of religious and gender relationships are in this part of the world and their far-reaching implications domestically and internationally. Women’s rights in Israel have suffered gradual and constant erosion, and the harassment of the Western Wall Women has been an unfortunate striking reminder of it.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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