Tolerance at the Kotel
It is precisely at times when the vocal majority attempts to impose its religious sensibilities on an embattled minority that a true democracy is tested.
Women of the Wall member raises Torah Photo: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post
Police arrested four women and grilled them for over two hours before bringing
them before the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Their crime? Praying at the
Western Wall (the Kotel) while wearing prayer shawls.
The court issued
restraining orders against the four shawl-wearing supplicants, forbidding them
to enter the Western Wall plaza for 50 days. As The Jerusalem Post’s Religious
Affairs reporter Jeremy Sharon pointed out, the four women – one aged 62 – were
singled out for arrest because they chose to wear a specific type of prayer
Unlike most of the approximately 50 women who wore colorful
“feminine” shawls, the four had the supreme audacity – at least from the
perspective of the police – to wear the sort of traditional black and white
shawl preferred by many Orthodox men.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel
Ben-Ruby attempted to defend the logic of distinguishing between colorful and
black-and-white shawls. Ben- Ruby said police arrest only women who wear shawls
“like a man” because doing so is a direct affront to religious
Ben-Ruby’s absurd distinction is based on a no-less-absurd
High Court of Justice decision dating back to April 2003 in which a panel of
nine justices, led by President Aharon Barak, in a 5-4 ruling, forbade women to
pray at the Western Wall in prayer shawls and perform other rituals normally
performed by men because doing so provoked ultra-Orthodox spectators and could
endanger public order and lead to rioting by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
not the first time our courts have kowtowed to bullies and fanatics. In February
of this year the Jerusalem Magistrate’s court defended the Jerusalem police’s
arrest of Eliyahu Kleiman, a young yeshiva student, for blowing the shofar
during the second day of Rosh Hashana in 2006 at the Kotel Hakatan, literally
the “small wall” located in the Muslim Quarter.
Judge Shirley Renner,
concerned that the shofar blowing – which took place that year during the Muslim
month of Ramadan – would anger fasting Muslims, ruled that an individual’s human
right to religious expression must be subordinated to public order and
In other words, Renner felt that since the benign act of shofar
blowing – like the benign act of women wearing men’s prayer shawls – could
conceivably whip religious fanatics – in this case Islamic extremists – into a
wildly ecstatic, uncontrollable frenzy, religious expression should be
subordinated to the sensibilities of a potentially volatile mob no matter how
unreasonable these sensibilities may be.
Similarly, Jewish prayer is
completely outlawed on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in the world for the
Jewish people, out of fear that the mere act of prayer, not only by a minyan
(quorum) but even by a single Jew, might set in motion a backlash of Muslim
Jews who visit the site are usually accompanied by an Israeli
policeman and a Muslim custodian. At the first sign that a Jew is praying (in
which lips begin moving without making a sound or a prayer book is opened) the
individual is whisked away.
All of these restrictions on freedom of
religion are problematic. They reward, and therefore encourage, extremism by
acquiescing to the irrationality of Muslim or ultra-Orthodox
They are also based on a “blame-the-victim” reasoning in which
innocent acts of faith (wearing a prayer shawl, blowing a shofar, praying) are
unjustly transformed into acts of incitement.
In addition, the courts,
the police and other state institutions inevitably get involved in inherently
religious matters (the proper color of a prayer shawl, the definition of prayer)
that are best left within the purview of the autonomous citizen.
precisely at times when the vocal majority (whether it be ultra-Orthodox Jews at
the Western Wall or Muslims on the Temple Mount) attempts to impose its
religious sensibilities on an embattled minority that a true democracy is
tested. Instead of caving in to the extremists, we should demand of all groups
in Israeli society a modicum of tolerance and a willingness to live in harmony
with diverse forms of religious expression.