The “crime” of praying as a Jew has a long, and dishonored place, in Jewish history.
For centuries, Jews have risked arrest — or worse — at the hands of non-Jewish authorities for engaging, often clandestinely, in Jewish prayer. It happened during the Inquisition in Spain, during the Holocaust in Nazi Europe, during the communist era in the former Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain lands of Eastern Europe.
As painful as these examples of religious discrimination and intolerance are, it is more painful when Jews themselves are responsible for curtailing the rights of other Jews to follow their conscience.
This has become an increasingly frequent occurrence, and the subject of headline news, in recent days in the Jewish state.
During their regularly scheduled prayer services at the Western Wall, the members of the Women of the Wall activist group are regularly subject to being taken into custody by Israeli police — and, some leaders of the group claim, to being roughly handled. After years of negotiations, most recently under the auspices of Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, a proposed compromise would create a space for egalitarian prayer in the Robinson’s Arch area adjacent to the Western Wall plaza.
Many Orthodox Jews consider the sight of a women’s prayer service that includes females wearing tallit and tefillin to be a provocation, a slap at local customs.
During their occasional forays on the Temple Mount area, which is controlled by the Muslim Waqf but under Israeli security protection, Orthodox men, typically members of right-wing religious or political organizations, are subject to being taken into custody by Israeli police for openly praying. This has happened twice in the last week. “Visitors identifiable as religious Jews … [who] are seen moving their lips in prayer, or prostrating themselves … are expelled and sometimes detained,” The Times of Israel reported this week.
Israel considers Jewish prayers to be a provocation to Muslim sensibilities at a site where Islam’s holiest buildings in Jerusalem stand; further, some rabbis have banned any Jewish presence in the area where the remnants of the ancient Holies of Holies are thought to be.
The Orthodox Jews who take offense at women’s unorthodox prayers, and the Muslims who take offense at any Jewish prayers in their presence on the Temple Mount, are united in their intolerance. Fellow members of Abrahamic faiths, both claiming the first Patriarch as the founder of their respective religions, both are using prayer as tools for parochial agendas.
There a famous joke about the child who seeks admission into his family’s synagogue on Yom Kippur to give his father a message but is warned, “Don’t let me catch you praying.” When Jewish prayer ends in arrest, it’s not a joke.