Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and chairman of the Jewish Agency, to study the issue of women’s prayer at the Western Wall and to help the government turn the wall into a “source of Jewish unity, rather than division,” an agency spokesman told the Jewish Week.
The agency, a nonprofit organization with quasi-governmental status, would not comment on the timing of the prime minister’s request, said spokesman Benjamin Rutland.
But the move comes after several recent arrests of women attempting to pray at the wall and, in December, demands by police that women leave their prayer shawls with security before entering the site.
Two years ago, the Jewish Agency stopped holding its own ceremonies for new immigrants at the wall because men and women couldn’t sit together due to rules mandating gender separation. On Oct. 30, the agency passed a resolution calling for at atmosphere of “mutual respect and Ahavat Yisrael,” or love of Israel, at the wall to facilitate religious expression by men and women.”
The agency intends to report back to the government in two or three months, after the upcoming elections, Rutland said.
The recent arrests have been of women affiliated with Women of the Wall, a Jerusalem-based group that has been agitating for more than 20 years for the right of women to pray together and out loud, to read from a Torah scroll and to wear prayer shawls at the wall.
Much of Women of the Wall’s support comes from outside Israel, where liberal Jewish denominations see the issue of women’s rights at the wall as a symbol of ultra-Orthodox control of religious life in Israel. Led by Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Reform Movement’s advocacy arm in Israel who was arrested for singing at the wall in October, the group convenes for regular prayer services to celebrate the new lunar month at the wall and has also fought religious restrictions there in the courts.
Citing a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told The Jewish Week that women are currently allowed to do these things, but only in the “Robinson’s Arch” area. Robinson’s Arch is at some distance from the iconic section of the wall Jews venerate, where men hold services on their side of the barrier that divides the genders. Women pray individually.
But the Women of the Wall say prayer is under the de facto control of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, an ultra-Orthodox organization that earlier this month told police to confiscate their prayer shawls when they attempted to gather at the wall.
When 100 people gathered for the group’s most recent monthly service, on Dec. 14, four women were arrested: one for refusing to take off her prayer shawl and three others for wearing them near the wall, Shira Pruce, a spokesman for the group, told The Jewish Week.
“The fact that they took the talitot at security was something brand new — it’s a whole new level of intimidation,” said Pruce, who said between 15 and 20 women have been arrested at the wall in the last six months. “Every month they have a new tactic, and it’s really about intimidation.”
The Women of the Wall is about to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to challenge the make-up of the foundation’s board, Hoffman told The New York Times on Dec. 25.
“If in the end what happens is that the Robinson’s Arch area will be run by the Jewish Agency instead of the antiquities department, then we’re talking about who’s going to take care of the air-conditioning in the back of the bus,” she told the Times. “I don’t care about that. I don’t want to sit in the back of the bus. I want to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.”
Feldman denies that the foundation has any authority, as did Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who runs the foundation, in an e-mail to the Jewish Week. They both said police would have confiscated women’s prayer shawls if they sensed that the women wearing them were about to be provocative by defying the court ruling.
In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in Women of the Wall’s favor, deciding women could hold group services at the wall in addition to reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls. But that decision was greeted with years of ultra-Orthodox violence at the wall when the group attempted to pray there, and the court reversed itself in 2003 for fear that female assembly at the wall would lead to rioting.