Women′s fight for equal prayer rights divides Jewish community | Globalization | DW | 21.06.2013
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Women's fight for equal prayer rights divides Jewish community

One group's push for women's rights and religious pluralism at Jerusalem's Western Wall is causing Israelis to question what it means to be a democratic state and be Jewish - and to what level the two are compatible.

Bonnie Ras, an ardent Zionist and conservative Jew, never expected to have her name on a court case against the state of Israel.

But the Jerusalem resident's involvement with prayer group Women of the Wall saw her name attached to a case that in late April resulted in an historic victory for the women, who fought for their right to pray according to their own customs at the Western Wall - the holiest Jewish site bar the Temple Mount itself.

Jewish prayer at the Western Wall has been part of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, tradition since the wall came under Jewish sovereignty in 1967. That means that men and women pray separately: Men can pray, sing, or read from the Torah out loud, and wear tallitot - prayer shawls - while women remain silent.

It's a status quo that hasn't really been challenged until recently.

Women of the Wall have been praying every month at the Western Wall for almost 25 years now. But things got nasty back in 2009, when they started reading aloud from the Torah and wearing tallitot, Ras told DW.

What does it mean to be Jewish?

"We don't want to be men," she said. "We're all religious women, we are educated women and we've taken on mitzvot (commandments), which Haredim will say women are exempt from."

"The Kotel (Western Wall) belongs to all of us," she added.

Bonnie Ras, a member of Women of the Wall, being arrested (photo: Women of the Wall)

Bonnie Ras has been arrested three times for praying at the Western Wall since she got involved in 2010

That attracted the ire not only of the Haredim, who have verbally and physically attacked the women on their monthly visits, but also of the state - which defines itself as both democratic and Jewish. It touched on genuine points of contention within Israeli society: What does it mean to be Jewish? Should the state have a broader definition of Jewishness than the default Haredi tradition that has dominated since Israeli statehood in 1948?

The monthly prayer gathering became a bankable media event as police regularly arrested the women for conducting a religious ceremony at a holy place that was not in accordance with local custom - a violation of the law.

This fight for religious pluralism resulted in a court case that Women of the Wall finally won in a landmark decision from the Jerusalem District Court. It said that women who wear prayer shawls or read the Torah at the Western Wall are not contravening local custom or causing a public disturbance and shouldn't be arrested.

Identity crisis

The case has split the nation. A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University's Peace Index in May found that 56 percent of the Israeli population support the women, while 34 percent opposed them.

One of those is Shmuel Rabinovich, rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy sites, who says the ultra-Orthodox custom should be maintained.

"I think it's really inappropriate," he said of the court ruling. "We are talking about a small group that is trying to bring about this discord. I beg them to stop."

The case of the Women of the Wall has stirred emotions across Israel. It comes at time when the ultra-Orthodox way of life - and the privileges that come with it - faces unprecedented change.

In past governments, ultra-Orthodox have held key ministries to ensure that marriage, immigration, housing and education remain under their control, effectively protecting their own communities and defining what it means to be a Jew. Religious court judges are ultra-Orthodox. And until now the Haredim have been able to defer army service in order to study Jewish scriptures - and even been paid a stipend to do so.

Many secular Israelis resent those privileges. Some of them put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government free from the ultra-Orthodox far right - which he did in January's general elections.

Rabbi Ken Spiro (photo: Vanessa O'Brien)

Rabbi Ken Spiro says the Haredim are coming under threat from all quarters

With that, the Haredim lost significant political influence. Now they face governmental policy changes that will impact their way of life.

"[The government's] agenda is to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into society by having them get secular studies, Israeli curriculum, serve in the army," says Orthodox Rabbi Ken Spiro from Aish Ha Torah Jewish Educational Center in Jerusalem. "This is a major change. This is the biggest since I've been in Israel in over 30 years. A direct sort of assault - I'm using the word very carefully - on that very insular community."

Spiro said there is no excuse for violence and the ongoing protests that the Women of the Wall have endured even since the court decision in April. But he said the conflict had to be viewed from a wider context. The Haredim were coming under threat from all quarters.

Gentle transition or civil war?

The Haredi community in Israel represents about 10 percent of the population, but has the highest birth rate - an average of eight children per family. It also has the highest rate of unemployment. Spiro says that this was unsustainable for the future and changes did need to take place - but gently.

"Otherwise you can have almost civil war in this country," he said. That's where he has a problem with the Women of the Wall forcing their issue to center stage.

Orthodox Jews attend a rally in Jerusalem (photo: imago/Xinhua)

The Haredim have lost significant political power

Bonnie Ras said she sympathized with the Haredim being forced to accept change and acknowledging the group is relatively untouched by the modern world.

"I do understand that and I respect that," she said, "but you can't hold back the rest of Judaism and the rest of the world," she said. "They're out of the government now. They're feeling the heat. They're feeling very, very threatened. And they have chosen the holiest place in Judaism to be their battleground."

The Women at the Wall may yet face another legal challenge, if the latest ruling is challenged at a higher court, or if lawmakers seek to change the law to make their activities illegal. And the ultra-Orthodox have given no indication that this battle is over yet.

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