The right message at the Wall

As is sadly all too familiar in the holy, contentious city of Jerusalem, this week was replete with ostensibly religiously motivated violence.

women of wall police 311 (photo credit: Barry Schlesinger)
women of wall police 311
(photo credit: Barry Schlesinger)
As is sadly all too familiar in the holy, contentious city of Jerusalem, this week was replete with ostensibly religiously motivated violence. Riots broke out, on and around the Temple Mount, sparked by baseless claims put forward by various Palestinian leaders that Israelis were scheming to undermine the Muslim hold on the Al Aksa Mosque.
The unrest, which followed the dedication of the Hurva Synagogue and last week’s ill-timed announcement of building in Ramat Shlomo, was a blatant attempt to use violence as a way to intimidate Israel.
But there was another, more minor incident in which religiously motivated violence was used to intimidate. On Tuesday, Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the Women of the Wall, a diverse, inter-denominational coalition that has been praying at the women’s section of the Kotel on the first day of every Jewish month for the past 21 years, was attacked by haredim.
Incensed by the women’s gender-equal prayer style (the women don prayer shawls which in Orthodoxy are reserved for men, and pray in a quorum, also a style of communal prayer reserved for men), a group of haredi men standing on the men’s side of the partition at the Western Wall plaza, began throwing chairs at the women even before they had begun praying. Thankfully, no one on the women’s side was hurt.
Most significant, though, was the police’s reaction to the haredi unrest. Instead of arresting the women for inciting the haredim, as it has done in recent months – when Nofrat Frenkel was pushed into a police van and detained for the “crime” of reading from a Torah scroll and wearing a tallit, and Anat Hoffman, a founder of Women of the Wall, was arrested, interrogated and fingerprinted for a similar “crime” – the police this time arrested the men who threw the chairs.
It is to be hoped that this marks a reversal of Israeli authorities’ tendency to blame the victim for a “provocation,” instead of blaming the attacker.
THIS CAVING in to haredi radicalism at the Kotel is backed by the Israeli judiciary.
In May 2003, the High Court of Justice, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the Women of the Wall could not pray out loud at the Wall. The court based its ruling on the premise that the women’s prayer endangered public order.
Although they did not phrase it quite this way, the judges, including then-president of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, basically argued that the presence of the Women of the Wall whipped the haredi public – both male and female – into a wildly ecstatic, uncontrollable rage that would lead to rioting.
The State of Israel, meanwhile, helpless in the face of this zealotry, could not guarantee the safety of the women or of the wider public. Therefore, the Women of the Wall, for their own good, had to be consigned to an alternative site, Robinson’s Arch, near to, but separate from the Kotel.
Due to the haredi public’s purported inability to control itself, the Women of the Wall are now forced to share Robinson’s Arch with an archeological site. As a result, it is available to them only until 10:30 each morning. Services must be coordinated in advance, and anyone arriving or leaving late is charged an $8 fee.
Robinson’s Arch lacks prayer equipment such as arks, Torah tables, chairs and prayer books, which must be brought in by worshipers. It has no indoor facilities, so it cannot be used when it rains, or when it is particularly hot.
But more than the inconvenience to the Women of the Wall, the premise underlying the High Court’s decision is problematic, even dangerous. It rewards bullying tactics and violence and switches the blame from the attacker to the victim.
According to this kind of reasoning, after all, the Palestinian violence we witnessed this week in Jerusalem could be justified as an inevitable response to any Israeli move deemed by Palestinians to be incitement, whether it be the refurbishing of an ancient synagogue located in the middle of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter or the building of 1,600 homes.
The clear message that the Israeli law enforcement authorities must send is that violence is an illegitimate form of protest. Gratifyingly, this is the message that was conveyed this week by Jerusalem’s police when they arrested violent haredi trouble-makers.