Women of the Wall

05.10.13

A Watershed Week For Jerusalem’s Women

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Israeli police officers block ultra-Orthodox protestors from reaching the Women of the Wall while they hold a prayer service at the Western Wall on May 10, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

This has been a great week for Israeli feminism.

Today’s confrontation at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which saw thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting the pluralistic prayer group Women of the Wall, made headlines in publications ranging from Haaretz to the New York Times—and rightly so. This was a watershed moment for both feminism and religious pluralism in Israel, because for the first time in 24 years Israeli police decided to protect—instead of arrest—the nearly 500 Women of the Wall members who had come to the Kotel to pray wearing tallit and tefillin in the women’s section.

The police’s about-face came on the heels of a landmark April 25 Jerusalem District Court ruling, upheld by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, which stated that the group should be allowed to pray as they see fit in the women’s section. Why? Because the women’s prayers cannot rightly be considered a provocation—even if the ultra-Orthodox choose to see it as such. Which, of course, they did: no less than Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas party’s revered spiritual leader, urged thousands of ultra-Orthodox seminary girls to flood the women’s section in order to prevent Women of the Wall from praying as they had planned. Meanwhile, men of all ages threw rocks, water bottles, garbage, chairs, and (incongruously) candy, as well as loud jeers and catcalls, over the gender-segregating barricade into the women’s section. But, as you can see in the video below, the women sang and prayed and smiled and cried tears of joy, undaunted—thanks to the new legitimacy and legal protection granted them by the recent court ruling.

Video screenshot

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If Women of the Wall’s victory constitutes Exhibit A for this week’s upswing in feminist success, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s new bill, which seeks to criminalize gender-based discrimination, is surely Exhibit B. Backed by Attorney-General Weinstein this Wednesday, the bill aims to make sure women are no longer excluded from public spaces, denied equal access to public services, or forcibly separated from men on buses, in cemeteries, on radio stations, and the like. Because there’s been a disturbing spike in gender segregation and discrimination in the past two years, this bill marks a vitally important and long overdue change; it seems the tide may finally be turning.

There are other hopeful signs, too. Exhibit C: ads for the recent Jerusalem marathon prominently featured women’s images, after years of such images being obscured or omitted outright. Exhibit D: supermodel Bar Rafaeli has started to appear on Jerusalem billboards. Exhibit E: the number of “ultra-kosher” buses, on which women are forced to sit at the back, is decreasing. And the list goes on: as Haaretz noted this week, the Israeli capital has seen a recent upswing in feminist victories, though the campaign for equality still has a long way to go.

Against this backdrop, it’s important to note that for feminists, such moments of success come with their own inherent challenges. One challenge has to do with making sure you’re not trampling on other people’s dreams on the way to your own victory. When Women of the Wall learned of the Jerusalem District Court ruling allowing them to pray in the women’s section, chairwoman Anat Hoffman initially stated that Sharansky’s plan to turn the adjacent Robinson’s Arch area into an egalitarian prayer space was now “completely not relevant for us.” That left many egalitarian supporters of Women of the Wall feeling deeply stung. Fortunately, Hoffman quickly realized the need to keep publicly backing her allies, even if their goals don’t map onto hers one-to-one; she wrote an op-ed clarifying that she’s still “in full support of [Sharansky’s] efforts and [intends] to be a willing and constructive partner.”

Another challenge has to do with making sure you’re not silencing other women’s voices—even those voices you as a progressive may not be particularly keen to hear. Women of the Wall met this challenge very gracefully in the lead-up to this morning’s prayer service, urging their own members not to “engage in conflict—verbal or physical” with protesters, and urging the ultra-Orthodox seminary girls coming to oppose them to think for themselves and consider joining them in prayer:

If you are a free-thinking woman recruited by these groups that wish to provoke a fight at the holy site, we urge you to take a moment, listen to our prayer and see our honest intent. If the mood strikes you, you are welcome to pick up a copy of our siddur and pray with us.

Encouragingly, it seems the group was actually rewarded for this overture. Hallel Silverman, the teenaged niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman who’s been supporting Women of the Wall, noted on Twitter that three seminary girls came up to her and said that seeing what the group did today at the Kotel was “very meaningful” to them. These girls bore out a prediction made by Hoffman, who told the Times, “The rabbis who sent them don’t understand that some of them will be asking, ‘Why not me?’ It’s a very subversive question.”

It seems unlikely that Women of the Wall will manage to “convert” very many of these ultra-Orthodox girls to their way of thinking. And, it should be noted, that’s really not even their goal. Yet the ultra-Orthodox leaders’ decision to send these girls marching into the women’s section—to use their bodies to reclaim a public space that they, as men, cannot enter—actually offers the girls a radical opportunity to encounter feminism and religious pluralism firsthand.

Ironically, it’s precisely women’s ability to take to the streets, to occupy public space in just this way, that Israeli feminists have been fighting for all along.