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 shawl.

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 sensibilities.

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.

This is 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 security.

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 rage.

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 demands.

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.

It is 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.

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