Solomonic solution

In an attempt to appease one group of religious fanatics (the ultra-Orthodox) we might end up angering another group (Muslims).

WoW April 11 arrests 4 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
WoW April 11 arrests 4 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 later.
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.
However, for 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 Wall.
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.
Like the 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 resolution.
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 around-the-clock.
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 demonstrations.
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 (Muslims).
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.