Tel Aviv — Last week’s milestone prayer service at the Western Wall with women wrapped in prayer shawls and tefillin was likened by Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman to the “liberation” of the ancient holy site in the 1967 Six-Day War.
But for the religious activist group, the battle is far from over. After rocks and bottles were hurled at the Women of the Wall last week from within an angry crowd of several thousand ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, police said they feared an even larger crowd of protestors on June 9, to mark the start of the Jewish month of Tammuz.
Hoffman, who spoke to The Jewish Week minutes before flying to the United States for meetings, said that she fears that the Israeli government might try to push legislation making egalitarian prayer illegal, bypassing a groundbreaking district court ruling saying such conduct is permissible.
Though the Women of the Wall chair held a first-ever meeting with an Israeli religious affairs minister — Naftali Bennett of the Orthodox “Jewish Home” party — to come up with a compromise, Hoffman is preparing for the worst: She said she has paid visits to women’s prison blocs to get a sense of conditions because her group is gearing up for new acts of civil disobedience.
“The minister has told us that he is going to legislate. … If they want to legislate that it’s illegal to read the Torah at the Wall, I think we’re all going to want to go to jail,” she said. “There’s not enough cells for the tallis-wearers and Torah readers.”
Attention now is shifting to how Bennett will react. That’s because Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobol ruled late last month that egalitarian prayer does not break the Israeli law prohibiting acts at holy sites that violate the abstract notion of “minhag hamakom” or “local custom.” And for the first time last week police were protecting the Women of the Wall instead of arresting them for disturbing the peace.
In the wake of the game-changing legal ruling, Bennett, a political neophyte, now has the authority to spell out in law just what local custom means. But coming up with an answer to such a question could be the subject of a dissertation, and the clock is ticking before another showdown.
“He’s got to do a lot of studying up to delve into this — it’s going to be a big test for him,” said Yair Ettinger, who covers the ultra-Orthodox community for the Israeli daily Haaretz. “We don’t know Bennett well enough to know what his views are on state and religion issue.”
The assumption of Hoffman and some analysts is that if Bennett attempts such legislation, it will restate established Orthodox ritual norms that reflect his religious constituency. But he’ll also have to get the approval of Justice Minister Tzippi Livni, who represents secular dovish Israelis more sympathetic to the Women of the Wall. And it is unclear if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will support legislation that is sure to kick up the ire of diaspora Jews.
“Anyone who is listening to the Jewish world today, both here and abroad, knows this isn’t possible,” Hoffman said. “I think it would injure the major strategic goals of Israel in the diaspora. I think that young Jews who love Israel will find it very hard to digest. Does Naftali Bennett want to add his name to that of Antiochus?,” a reference to the Greek tyrant of the Chanukah story.
A spokeswoman for Bennett said that he is seeking a compromise with the Women of the Wall rather than producing new legislation, and that further meetings are expected.
The images at the Western Wall last Friday evoked scenes of civil rights struggles in the American South from the 1960s. Some 500 Israeli police officers formed a human barrier between the women worshipers and the surging crush of demonstrators, who taunted the women and blew whistles to drown out their worship. Because of the Jerusalem court decision, the police for the first time were charged with protecting the women rather than arresting them for disturbing the peace.
Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that the presence of Israeli security forces prevented the outbreak of a violent riot, and that if a compromise isn’t reached by June 9, police might need four times as many officers to handle potential disturbances.
The dispute over the wall could widen an already existing gap over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians between the more liberal Jewish community in North America and Israeli Jewry, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
“That is what makes this such a dangerous moment,” he said. “This is turning into an increasingly ugly confrontation between streams of Judaism. The Western Wall, which is supposed to unite Jews, is increasingly dividing us.’’
The demonstrations on Friday thrust the Women of the Wall into the mainstream spotlight as Israeli politicians increasingly confront the place of the insular — and burgeoning — ultra-Orthodox community within the larger society. A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 62 percent of Israelis support the cause of Women of the Wall.
After the surprise second-place finish of the Yesh Atid party in a January election, Israel’s government is currently mulling new legislation to end draft exemptions for haredim and cut entitlements, in order to encourage yeshiva students to get full-time jobs. It is also trying to figure out how to ensure that students in the autonomous but state-funded ultra-Orthodox schools learn secular core curricula.
The protests on Friday brought out only a small fraction of the ultra-Orthodox constituency, reflecting a desire by haredi rabbis to probe the response of Israeli authorities. A decision to call haredi school girls to flood the women’s section and block the Women of the Wall from reaching the massive Herodian stones was a “nuanced” way of non-violently blocking the Wall, said Joel Katz, who writes a blog on religion and state in Israel.
“[The haredim] are testing the waters. Their back is against the wall,” Katz said. “They are not in the coalition, and Lapid is going after them. So they are lashing out.”
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, expressed regret over the Friday’s events in a video interview with the Jerusalem Post.
“This isn’t the Western Wall we prayed for,” he said. “There is a place at the Western Wall for every Jew. I’m not sure there is a place for every opinion. That is simply a recipe for an explosion. There is no such option.”
Rising attention surrounding the Women of the Wall demonstrations among diaspora Jews prompted Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharanksy to suggest that the southwestern section of the wall be set aside for multidenominational prayer. But the plan is likely to take years to pass through the various planning hurdles, as well as reach a compromise among Jewish and archeological authorities.
Haaretz reported that the Sharansky plan envisions a wooden deck over the archeological artifacts under the Robinson’s Arch portion of the Wall. The plan is already being opposed by Israel’s archeological community and the Antiquities Authority. Such a status quo altering renovation would almost surely kick up concern among the Muslim Waqf and Jordan as well, said Daniel Seidman, a lawyer who monitors Israeli building in east Jerusalem.
Analysts say that Reform and Conservative Jewish authorities agree to the idea of a separate prayer area for. Women of the Wall’s Hoffman said she reserving judgement until a plan is finalized. “I don’t support something that I don’t see.”