Yet again, Jerusalem police arrested several women at the Western Wall
yesterday. Their crime? Wearing tallitot and singing while conducting prayers
and reading from the Torah.
This routine has repeated itself on Rosh
Hodesh for years. Women try to exercise their right to religious expression and
the police arrest them while crowds of reactionary zealots – men and women –
burning with righteous indignation hurl anathemas, and sometimes chairs, at the
women. In the most recent incident, police say they used video cameras to
document additional Women of the Wall members who will be arrested
Technically, Western Wall regulations formulated by the
ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities who are the custodians of the Kotel dictate
that women cannot wear tallitot in the same manner as men, as it contravenes the
“local custom” determined by the Wall’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi. In 2003, the
High Court of Justice upheld the directives, which are interpreted as banning
women wearing tefillin or tallitot. And police make arrests based on both the
directives and the High Court decision that defends them.
most of American Jewry and others used to having their basic human rights
protected, it is nothing less than mind-boggling to discover that the Jewish
state curtails the right of religious of expression of women belonging to
Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements. And this is done
at the holiest site to the Jewish people.
Indeed, we have in the past
criticized the High Court decision ruling that the Women of the Wall could not
pray out loud or wear tallitot and tefillin at the Western Wall, in that it was
based on a “blame the victim” argument.
In essence, then-president of the
Supreme Court Aharon Barak and the four additional justices who concurred,
claimed that the presence of the Women of the Wall whipped some religious
extremists into an uncontrollable rage that could lead to rioting. The State of
Israel and its law enforcers, helpless in the face of this unbridled frenzy of
zealotry, could not guarantee the safety of the women or of the wider public.
Therefore, for their own good, the Women of the Wall had to be consigned to an
alternative site, Robinson’s Arch, near but separated from the Western
Unfortunately, unlike the Western Wall that is open 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, Robinson’s Arch cannot always be accessed since supplicants
must share it with an archeological site. Also, while there is no admission fee
at the Western Wall, the same is not true of Robinson’s Arch.
High Court’s decision against Women of the Wall, similar decisions have been
handed down by our courts to prevent Jews from praying on the Temple Mount or
from blowing a shofar during Rosh Hashana prayers at a small strip of wall in
the Muslim Quarter known as the Kotel Hakatan (“the small wall”), which is
considered closer to what was once the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. The
only difference is that it is Muslim extremists, not Jewish zealots, who are the
proverbial powder keg waiting to explode.
Now, thanks to the sagacious
intervention of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and the backing of Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a seemingly intractable clash of opposing values
(reactionary intolerance vs liberal freedom of choice) might be nearing
Sharansky is calling for the expansion of the Western Wall
Plaza to encompass Robinson’s Arch. In addition, Robinson’s Arch, presently
lower than the level of the Western Wall Plaza, would be raised to the same
height. Non-Orthodox services could be held there without harassment of
religious fanatics or police. And, hopefully, access will be free of charge and
The Supreme Court decision can be respected and freedom
of religious expression can be upheld.
It is a brilliantly Solomonic
solution, which appears to have the tentative backing of all sides. The only
potential problem is extremist Muslims, confronted with a new construction plan
in the Temple Mount vicinity, will launch huge and potentially violent
Recall what happened when the exit from the Western Wall
tunnels was opened onto the Muslim Quarter or when attempts were made to
dismantle the Mughrabi Bridge. In an attempt to appease one group of religious
fanatics (the ultra-Orthodox) we might end up angering another group
The lesson to be learned is that you can never appease all the
fanatics all the time. The only hope for peace is the steadfast protection of
the right to religious expression for all.