Michal Barkai is a tour guide who specializes in guiding schoolchildren in the Jerusalem area. A month ago, she arrived with a group of 18-year-old students from Mazkeret Batya, who came - many for the first time - to visit the capital and the Jewish holy sites, including the Western Wall.
"It all started well, full of good energy as we all sang songs about Jerusalem and felt our spirits rising. These were boys and girls just before starting military service, and seeing the only remnant left of the Temple was a very moving experience for all of us. But as we approached the Wall, still singing and some of us dancing, a haredi woman dressed in some uniform came over and yelled at us and very rudely ordered us to separate the girls from the boys, to stop the girls from singing, and began to curse us. Some of the girls were in a state of shock; others began to cry. The whole atmosphere of just a few minutes before became ugly and even threatening, and we had to leave sooner than we had planned."
Barkai's testimony, which filled five typewritten pages, was sent to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), where such reports have become routine in recent years. According to the head of the center, Anat Hoffman, the situation described by the guide reflects the deterioration of the situation at the Western Wall, which is becoming more of a haredi synagogue than a national historic site.
Visitors to the Western Wall, both Jewish and non-Jewish, respect the place and do not try to oppose the rules and restrictions set forth by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch. The result is that the Western Wall and the plaza that surrounds it, many believe, have been turned into a haredi location. The list of groups, organizations and individuals who feel that the Western Wall has changed from a national site connected with Jewish history and legacy into a strict haredi location with all the relevant interdictions and extreme rules of modesty is getting longer every day. High on that list are the non-Jewish tourists or Arab residents who are required to remove any external signs of their religion; the secular women who are forbidden to use the separated aisle on the upper side of the plaza designated for observant Jews; and the female soldiers who are forbidden to sing or to take their oath aloud in IDF ceremonies. The latest flare-up surrounded the arrest of Nofrat Frankel, a member of the Women of the Wall prayer group, who wore a tallit and carried a Torah scroll, an action for which Israeli law can impose a six-month prison sentence and a NIS 10,000 fine.
Members of Women of the Wall, which considers itself to be acting within the boundaries of Halacha, were outraged. (This writer is a member of the organization.)
"WOW is deeply dismayed by the detention of Nofrat Frankel simply because she wore a tallit while praying at the Western Wall with our group," responds member Batya (Betsy) Kallus. "Women of the Wall have been praying at the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh, as well as on Tisha Be'av and Purim, for 21 years. Never before, during this entire time, has any of us been arrested. Over the years, we have donned tallitot, read from the Torah, waved the lulav, read the Scroll of Esther and the Book of Lamentations as well as chanted Hallel out loud, all at the Western Wall.
"We view Nofrat's arrest as part of the expanding level of control that the ultra-Orthodox are exerting at the Western Wall. Their efforts to limit women's participation in prayer at the Western Wall does not reflect the general trend within the modern Orthodox community throughout the world, which recognizes women's rights to don tallitot. It is disturbing that only at the Western Wall is it illegal for a woman to don a tallit. In conclusion, Women of the Wall believe that the Western Wall is a national symbol of the entire Jewish people and belongs to all of us, women and men alike."
AFTER YEARS of incredibly large audiences, including non-religious, who came to the plaza for the mourning prayers of Yom Kippur and for the slihot period preceding Rosh Hashana, it seems that the stringent modesty and separation rules imposed have created a strong sense of alienation. Last Tisha Be'av, for the first time in about 10 years, there were far fewer non-religious participants at the Western Wall. "We just felt uncomfortable last year," recalls a group from the Conservative Youth Movement. "We were asked to separate already on the upper plaza, so we decided not to come this year."
There is no doubt that even the appearance of the holiest Jewish site has changed quite a lot. Compared to the old black-and-white pictures from the early 20th century in which Jewish men and women stood or sat on the ground close to the stones without any barrier between them, the current scenario - with all its separation structures and large signs instructing people to observe the rules of modesty - has alienated many Israelis.
"The last time I went to the Western Wall was on Tisha Be'av," recalls Avi Nathan, who is modern Orthodox. "I came all the way from Haifa, fasting in the heat because I wanted to experience a spiritual moment with my two sons. It was very frustrating to see that this place, which had been liberated by the IDF, had become a haredi stronghold in which I, as a former paratrooper, felt in fact unwanted. I just said a short prayer and ran away from there, and I doubt I will go back anytime soon."
City council member Rahel Azaria, a modern Orthodox woman and leader of the Yerushalmim movement, says that the current situation has become unbearable. "I recently visited the Jewish Quarter and understood that the Western Wall was not alone. This neighborhood, in which so much attention and love were invested to make it a welcoming place for all the Jews of the world, has turned out into a haredi slum, with massive illegal construction around, posters of haredi yeshivot - I felt as if this place, and the Wall as well, were throwing me out, as if there was no place there for me and people like me. But another inner voice told me not to surrender, to fight in order to bring back the Kotel, which belongs to us all - religious and secular alike, Jews and Israelis - to bring it back to us, not to let anyone drive me away from there."
Azaria talks about the many complaints she receives from tour guides who are warned not to allow women in the groups to sing when they reach the Western Wall plaza. "The rabbi of the Western Wall forbids paratroopers to take their oath there, the Israeli flags have been removed, the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry cannot hold welcoming ceremonies their for new olim there. [Since July 2009, welcoming ceremonies for new olim were held with strict gender separation, followed by a decision on the part of the Jewish Agency to stop holding those ceremonies there.]
"If soldiers are not welcome anymore at the Western Wall and women don't feel comfortable there, and if the rules of gender separation have become extreme, it is clear that it is no longer a national Israeli site but a haredi Kotel," concludes Azaria. Yerushalmim, together with other local groups, is organizing a tour of the Jewish Quarter at 4 p.m. on December 13 and candlelighting at 5:15 p.m. under the banner of "The Western Wall belongs to everyone."
THE FENCE that separates the men's and women's sections was not there from the beginning. In April 1968 Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the leading figure of American Reform Judaism, decided to hold the biannual conference of the Reform movement in Jerusalem. At the end of the conference he led a special prayer of gratitude at the Kotel, attended by thousands of Jews from Israel and abroad who were still reeling from the heady results of the Six Day War. The prayer was attended by both men and women, and within a few minutes the outraged haredi members of the Levi Eshkol government threatened to quit the coalition and thus bring about the dissolution of the government. Eshkol, the first in a long series of prime ministers to come, surrendered and a separation barrier was erected within a few days.
"About eight million people - religious, secular, men and women, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Israelis and tourists, Jews and non-Jews - visit the Western Wall every year," says Western Wall rabbi Rabinovitch. "The plaza is full of people day and night. People come to visit, to pray, to meditate. We have to respond adequately to the requests and needs of people who feel uncomfortable to walk among masses of people, some of them secular. The Kotel is for everyone, but we have to take into consideration special needs as well. So we have this separate lane on the upper side, which allows religious men not to cross the plaza."
Rabinovitch insists that his prime concern is to offer to any visitor, notwithstanding his or her opinions or religious status, a place that welcomes all. "It is not easy at all. I have quite a few advisers. I am very careful and aware of each side and requests. It is so easy to transform this holy place into a place of dispute or controversy. My task is to avoid that, and my efforts are focused on achieving the golden mean."
Regarding the requests, not always welcomed, from non-Jews to remove any sign of their faith - Rabinovitch says, "Exactly as I wouldn't accept that a Jew would step into the site of another religion while wearing obvious signs of the Jewish faith, I expect others to do the same regarding the Western Wall. But, of course, everything is done with politeness and respect."
Still, at IRAC there are numerous reports of nuns who were requested to remove their crosses; of Arab residents who are requested to cover their head as they pass the plaza; and perhaps the toughest case, a disabled man from Gilo who was forced to turn off the motor of his electric wheelchair on Shabbat and had to return home and forgo being able to say a prayer at the Wall.
DESPITE THE fact that in many popular traditions, women are associated with fidelity to the Western Wall, women are perhaps the most vocal over alleged discrimination there. Women of the Wall, a group of women from all denominations in Judaism, who first appeared there in 1988, are perhaps the most well known. The group, which follows rules of Halacha as determined by the Orthodox rabbis it consulted and does not consider itself a minyan, was created at the end of the first women's conference held here. This eventually led to the foundation of the women's lobby in Israel. The founders were a group of modern Orthodox Jewish women from Israel and the US who came to celebrate the conference with a Torah scroll in the women's section of the Western Wall. Despite their being Orthodox, they were forcibly removed from the area, some of them even injured. Since then, for the past 21 years, the group has gone to pray there every Rosh Hodesh and read from their Torah scroll.
Not surprisingly, the haredi opposition to their presence, together with the indifference of the secular women's and human rights associations, managed to convince the police and the various governments that the right of women to pray according to their custom and the halachic requirements was too much of a threat to the state. The High Court of Justice ultimately ruled that the group should pray according to its customs - meaning with tallitot and reading aloud from the Torah away from the place which, for two millennia, has been the most important religious site for Jews all over the world, and sent the women to the Robinson's Arch site nearby. This site has also become the alternative Wall for mixed prayer groups of the Reform and Conservative movements.
IT IS Thursday, 11 p.m. At the entrance to the women's section at the Western Wall, a small group of women, mostly elderly, are still there praying. Close to the fence separating the men's section, three women are sitting on the plastic chairs, chatting. A group of tourists arrive. On the upper side, they separate. The women go down to the women's section; the men, some of them with paper kippot ready in their hands, go towards the men's section. They are all busy taking pictures with their cameras. At least four beggars - officially forbidden by the rules set out by the Western Wall rabbi but apparently they are never disturbed - try to get the women's attention but with very little success.
"I have come to pray at the Wall every Monday and Thursday for the last 40 years," says Haya (she didn't want to give her full name), a diminutive haredi woman dressed all in gray, who lives in Mea She'arim. "I have, thank God, been able to come here all these years, in winter and in summer, when I was pregnant or even sick, because it is written that here the gates of heavens are closer, and I have taken it upon myself to add my share to bring Mashiah. I will do it as long as God gives me strength, and I hope that my prayers will ease these terrible times for our people," adding that she never pays attention to all the "troubles and politics around here," nodding toward the female tourists whose hair is uncovered and are wearing pants.
After a while, a cleaning man arrives and steps indifferently into the women's section, sweeping the floor. It seems that as far as cleaning issues are concerned, the strict haredi rule of compulsory separation is a little lax.