Women's Equality At the Western Wall is Closer Than You Believe

The struggle over prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem has long been one of many battles over religious practice and identity in Israel.

After months of intense protests over who gets to pray at the wall, Israeli officials unveiled a new plaza with "the goal to unify all walks of Jewish life" where men and women can pray together. However, the new area, in an archaeological park known as Robinson's Arch, has been deemed "discriminatory" by protesters.

Feminist activists known as Women of the Wall (WOW) have been seeking to challenge the customs and limitations on how and where women can pray for more than 25 years. But despite their court victory in April that allowed for women to pray as they wish, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox young men and women have crammed the site to prevent the women from using it in the last few months.  

Moshe Sobel, the presiding judge in the District Court, ruled that in its prayer service, WOW had not violated a law that requires worship according to "local custom" at Jewish holy sites. He also ruled that the phrase "local custom" did not necessarily mean Orthodox custom.

The lack of gender integration since courts ruled in April, however suggest that there are underlying issues at play within this conflict, not just between men and women but between the Jewish state and the Jewish diaspora. 

As a remnant of the retaining wall of the ancient temple, the Western Wall is known as Judaism's most sacred site, attracting thousands of Orthodox Israelis and foreign tourists alike. Governed by Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the site has areas segregated by sex and requires women to dress modestly and refrain from singing aloud. Local legislation and legal rulings have also barred women from wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries at the site. Mixed prayer, however, has been allowed at Robinson's Arch during limited hours for a fee. 

The new 4,800-square-foot plaza, built for about $80,000, has been stressed as an "interim solution" until a more comprehensive plan for a mixed-prayer section could be formulated. However, Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Women of the Wall, denounced the plaza as a "monstrosity" that looks like a "sunbathing deck" or a "rock-star stage" and announced that the group will continue to push for access to the women's section of the main area.

The group's monthly prayer sessions prompted multiple arrests and demonstrations over the past year. They have also started a 24-hour sit-in to protest the new plaza.

Although the movement for equal access for people to pray as they wish at the wall has gained momentum from liberal diaspora Jews, it has failed to do so in Israel.

"Secular Israelis do not see this as their problem; to them it’s a bunch of crazy American ladies," said Shari Eshet, who represents the New York-based National Council of Jewish Women. "It’s embarrassing for Israel, it’s embarrassing for Jews, and the American Jewish community is beginning to understand that it’s a slippery slope here."

According to the New York Times, "while more than 60% of Jews in the United States identify with the Reform or Conservative movements, where women and men have equal standing in prayer and many feminists have adopted ritual garments, in Israel it is one in 10. Instead, about half call themselves secular, and experts say that most of those consider Orthodoxy as the true Judaism, feel alienated from holy sites like the Western Wall, and view a woman in a prayer shawl as an alien import from abroad."

While the struggle over prayer at the Western Wall ensues, officials have called the new plaza "an important step forward" if it is indeed temporary. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former dissident Natan Sharansky to formulate a compromise between liberal Jewish women and the Ultra-Orthodox who have called the protesters' presence an "abomination."

Although Sharansky has not revealed what his final proposal entails, the solution will likely not come easily or anytime soon given the multiple hurdles of appeasing activists on both sides, concerned archaeologists, and government officials. 

“If the idea is how to satisfy everybody in the world, there’s no way to do it … Every Jew in the world has to feel that they are connected to Israel and that the Kotel [the Western Wall] is the symbol of this connection to the Jewish people,” Sharansky said. 

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Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Hyacinth is a graduate of the George Washington University where she majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. Her interests include cultural, social and political trends in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as human rights issues across the globe.

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