Women of the Wall hit 30 with a mixed bag of successes and failures

What exactly has this group of women achieved, and do any of their successes extend beyond the Western Wall plaza?

Women of the Wall celebrating their 30th anniversary (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Women of the Wall celebrating their 30th anniversary
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Women of the Wall (WoW) organization celebrates its 30th anniversary this Friday, and its celebratory new moon prayer service at the Western Wall looks set to be in equal measure dramatic and unfortunately intensely contentious.
Since the first women’s prayer service was held at the women’s section of the Kotel on a chilly morning on December 1, 1988, by a group of women who would eventually form the Women of the Wall, many battles have been waged, lost and won.
But what exactly has this group of women achieved, and do any of their successes extend beyond the Western Wall plaza?
For WoW chairwoman Anat Hoffman, the successes are obvious; women may legally pray out loud in a minyan (group of 10), and may wear prayer shawls and tefillin if they so wish, but currently are legally restricted from reading a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the wall.
Although group prayer for women in the women’s section was one of WoW’s earliest victories, praying with prayer shawls and tefillin became one of the most significant struggles for WoW to overcome.
Beginning around 2009, some 55 women were detained by the police at the site under terms of regulations at the site stipulating that only the “customs of the site” could be used for religious services, and the feelings of other worshipers must not be offended.
In a critical ruling in 2013, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court determined that since WoW had been praying at the site for 25 years, its customs were included in the customs of the site, and that it was the protesters to WoW’s prayer services who were disturbing the peace, not the prayer services themselves.
The upshot of this decision was that instead of arresting women praying at the site, the police were now required to protect their legal right to do so.
Although in reality, the police have largely abandoned WoW prayer participants to the vitriolic harassment of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and hard-line National-Religious protesters ever since, the fact remains that WoW achieved much of its original goal; the ability to pray at the Western Wall in a minyan of women in accordance with their own customs.
There is however one critical, unfulfilled goal, the last aspect of a full new-month prayer service they cannot currently perform legally: the right to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section, which regulations determined by administrator of the Western Wall plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, prohibit.
Although this practice is still banned, WoW and another group of women that holds frequent prayer services at the site have smuggled into the site small but kosher Torah scrolls at every single prayer service they conduct.
Nevertheless, it has to be done clandestinely, and so the final goal of this women’s movement remains unachieved for the moment.
“The fact that Women of the Wall could secure the voice of women at the women’s section of the wall is no small thing,” says Hoffman.
“We put on prayer shawls, tefillin, say the kaddish prayer out loud, say the slihot [repentance prayers], the priestly blessing, all of this met with strong opposition and all of it is now normal,” she points out.
But within the narrow parameters of the struggle for women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall, one of WoW’s founding
members, Shulamit Magnus, who has since splintered away from the group to form Original Women of the Wall, also says that the movement has been extremely effective in achieving its goals.
“It has been a vast success. We have won every legal round,” she notes.
And, Magnus points out, the fact that WoW can hold their monthly services at the women’s section, including Torah reading, demonstrates how far the movement has come, despite the fact that reading from a Torah is technically illegal and has to be done somewhat clandestinely.
But she says that when Original Women of the Wall goes to pray, not for the new month as WoW does but on a Monday or Thursday once a month, they encounter no resistance and very little harassment, even when reading from the Torah, which they do every time they go.
Hoffman acknowledges however that obtaining the final goal of WoW’s objectives, legally reading from the Torah in the women’s section, has so far eluded them, and moreover is not seen as a particularly serious issue by the general public.
And Hoffman notes that “the issue of Torah is not making waves it should make” and that internal polling done by the organization reveals there is not significant public interest in the issue, despite relatively high support for WoW in general.
But Hoffman argues further that WoW has had a broader impact than just at the Western Wall, and says that women have seen their struggle as an inspiration in other domains of concern for feminism.
Further, she says, the negotiations WoW entered into with the government to reach a comprehensive compromise for prayer rights at the holy site can serve as a model for dealing with other complex and contentious matters of religion and state, and beyond.
“We were the catalysts for the Kotel agreement, which was an historic agreement where Israelis on both sides of the issue held a dialogue and were able to come to a compromise,” she argues.
To an extent, this is true. Following legal pressure from the petitions to the High Court of Justice, as well as a liberally minded government coalition, and a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, negotiations were initiated in 2013 between WoW, the Conservative and Reform movements, representatives of the haredi political parties, Rabinowitz himself and representatives of the Chief Rabbinate.
A grand compromise was reached, whereby WoW agreed, extremely painfully, to give up their long-fought right to pray at the Women’s section of the central Western Wall plaza in return for state recognition of the Robinson’s Arch prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall as a state holy site, and for a management committee of the site to include representatives from WoW, and the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements.
Eventually, after the haredi parties got cold feet, that compromise fell apart and was indefinitely frozen in 2017, although it could be revived by a new government if it so wished.
Nevertheless, the fact that it was possible to bridge the gaps between two fiercely antagonistic sides despite the subsequent reversals should be seen as a ray of light and optimism in these times of political division and discord.
Should the 2016 agreement be revived, it would see WoW move its monthly services to the Robinson’s Arch prayer site and thereby end their three-decades long struggle, since the agreement stipulates that the central plaza would be designated for Orthodox prayer and customs only and the Robinson’s Arch site be designated for progressive prayer.
This agreement is fiercely opposed by the Original Women of the Wall, which split from WoW precisely because they refuse to give up the rights won at the central plaza.
Even Hoffman says that should Torah reading be made permissible at the central plaza, without implementation of the 2016 agreement, that would also constitute the end of WoW’s struggle and the movement would continue to pray at the central site.
“For WoW, if we saw the fulfillment of all our strategic goals including Torah reading at the Kotel, it would then be time for the non-Orthodox to fight for alternatives at the egalitarian plaza [at Robinson’s Arch]. We want to liberate ourselves in the Kotel plaza.”
Attorney Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, believes that WoW has had a broader impact on the advancement of women in Israel beyond its achievements at the Western Wall.
She notes that recent years have seen a growth in efforts by some to try to obscure the presence of women from the public domain due to the demands of elements in the haredi community, but says that WoW’s ongoing and consistent struggle for its rights at the Western Wall has served as a beacon of light for other organizations and campaigns.
“WoW took their struggle into a male-dominated area, a religious arena, and perhaps the hardest place of all to assert women’s rights, where the glass ceiling is so very thick,” said Gera Margaliot.
“But now we see today in the public domain issues which have nothing to do with religion or the Western Wall or even a synagogue, such as discrimination against women and gender segregation in the public domain,” she says. “It’s insinuating itself into the whole public sphere.”
Gera Margaliot points to the phenomenon of gender-segregated bus lines, gender-segregated higher-education institutions, even sidewalks in some places, and beyond, as examples of the struggles currently being fought by various women’s rights groups.
“WoW’s struggle is an example of the broader struggle, and they did it in the hardest arena, the religious one, and have broken the glass ceiling for all of us with their constant and long-term struggle.
“They are pioneers for women’s issues, especially regarding religious issues, in the public domain.”
Magnus is somewhat more circumspect about the broader impact of WoW on the status of women in Israel.
She says WoW’s campaign has not had a big impact on issues such as the discrimination against women descried by Gera Margaliot, as well as issue such as divorce recalcitrance and the women who are trapped in an unwanted marriage for many years, a serious blight on society that is yet to be resolved.
And she notes that although public opinion does support WoW, most people do not care particularly about it and do not give it high priority.
Magnus also believes that the huge energy and investment spent on reaching the 2016 agreement, and then trying, and failing so far, to get it implemented, could have been better spent.
Magnus and Original Women of the Wall fiercely oppose the agreement and any effort to abrogate their rights at the Western Wall, so this opposition is not surprising.
Yet her opinion that investment in grassroots efforts, such as in education, to build support for the progressive Jewish movements from the ground up could have yielded better results in the long term.
Hoffman, naturally, feels differently and believes that her organization has had an impact beyond the realm of women’s rights and status.
In particular, she argues that WoW has advanced the cause of civil rights and minority rights in Israel.
“We have advanced aspects of democracy, by insisting that the keys to the holiest place for the Jewish people shouldn’t have been given to the fundamentalists,” she says. “Democracy is measured by how democracies treat their minorities, and we fight for minority rights and have inspired other minorities.
“We started as single women, and we are now all grandmothers, but the fire of fighting injustice has not burnt out. And until we are free everywhere we’re not free everywhere.”