Sobel + 4: The uncelebrated anniversary

The fourth anniversary of the Sobel decision that affirmed women’s rights to pray as a group at the Kotel while wearing tallit, tefilian, and with a Sefer Torah was not celebrated this year. That’s because our hard-won rights have been trampled and eroded the more the government kowtows to haredi demands.

Now, four years later, we (Women of the Wall) are put in a metal cage away from the worshippers and devoid of access to the Kotel stones – like lepers – where we are still subjected to verbal harassment, extreme searches at the plaza entrance, and our peaceful prayers are disrupted by constant noise abuse that is ignored by Kotel security and police. One haredi teenager worked herself into a hysterical frenzy screaming, “Go away, this is not yours.”

Linda Avitan, a Wow board member said, “It feels like we are back decades ago; like we are in a third-world country where women are not allowed to be heard and are barely seen.”

But this type of harassment does not stop us from continuing our almost 28-year tradition of Rosh Hodesh Tefilla services. This Iyar we were joined by hundreds of young women from nine mechinot, pre-army leadership training programs, to celebrate the new month and Israeli Independence Day.

We were able to bring a small Torah scroll in after months of refraining from doing so while we await the court’s decision about lawsuits pertaining to women’s rights and the implementation of the government decision (Dec. 2015)  to build the third pluralistic section of the Kotel. But our restraint only made the haredi opposition more entrenched.

On Thursday, 300 women celebrated Rosh Hodeh, and celebrated Israel. Our moving service ended with women holding Israel flags like huppas and singing Hatikvah. This made the haredi protesters scream even louder. I don’t know what offended them more; women reading from a Sefer Torah or the Israel flags.

Later, Wow’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman said: Our struggle for the right to pray at the Kotel comes from a place of patriotism, of deep love for the State of Israel. The best way to protect the homeland is to challenge the government, instead of standing idly by, in the presence of the exclusion of women and discrimination.”

Also on Rosh Hodesh Iyar, Ezarat Yisrael, the currant egalitarian prayer space was hijacked by an initiative organized by Ateret Cohanim to disrupt all mixed prayer services anywhere at the Kotel. After rejecting the holiness of the Southern wall for years, they are now claiming it for ultra-Orthodoxy. Just as they bussed in thousands of yeshiva girls to physically block Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel in the months following the Sobel decision (and again two months ago) they are using the same tactic at Ezarat Yisrael.

When egalitarian groups, many of them b’nai mitzvah families, came to pray, they found the space had been taken over by a large group that had set up a mehitza in the middle of the space and there was little or no room for any other prayer groups.

The Masorti and Reform movements denounced these actions and said they were a direct result of the government’s refusal to implement the plan to create an equal pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. Something, the haredi political and religious leadership has vowed to never allow.

As long as the government is being held hostage by a minority of the population who have clout as coalition makers and breakers, the stranglehold over religious life in Israel will continue and the struggle for women’s rights and religious pluralism in Israel will become even more vital.