A FLURRY of recent arrests of women in ritual dress seeking to pray at the sacred Western, or Wailing, Wall in Jerusalem in defiance of Israeli law has prompted the government to order an urgent review.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aware of the outrage across the Jewish diaspora at the arrests, has asked the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to come up with ways to accommodate all Jews at the site.
The move follows more than two decades of civil disobedience by a group called Women of the Wall, seeking to overturn the law, including a 2003 supreme court ruling that allows for gender division at the wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and prohibiting women from carrying a Torah or wearing prayer shawls there.
Although the movement has struggled to gain traction in Israel, where the ultra-orthodox remain influential, the issue has deepened a divide between the state and the Jewish diaspora at a time when Israel is battling international isolation over its settlement policy.
Critics, particularly leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in America, claim Israel’s recent aggressive enforcement of restrictions at the wall has turned a national monument into an ultra-orthodox synagogue.
“The PM thinks the Western Wall has to be a site that expresses the unity of the Jewish people, both inside Israel and outside the state of Israel,” said Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s senior advise. “He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry. This is an important component of Israel’s strength.”
Sharansky, whose quasi-governmental non-profit organisation handles immigration for the state and is a bridge between Israel and Jews around the world, said Netanyahu expected him to come up with recommendations within “a few months.” He and Dermer said the agenda would include improvements for Robinson’s Arch, a discreet area of the wall designated for co-gender prayer under the 2003 ruling, and the easing of restrictions in the larger area known as the Western Wall plaza, along with the more sensitive questions regarding prayer at the main site.
Sharansky said the Jewish Agency stopped having ceremonies for new immigrants in the plaza about two years ago after the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the site, said men and women could not sit together. Under pressure from the international groups that help finance it, the agency passed a resolution in October calling for a “satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall.”
Sharansky, a respected former Soviet dissident, added: “I imagine very easily a situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the state of Israel in a way he or she wants, without undermining the other.”
Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, reacted with cautious optimism to the initiative, but said it would not stop the Israel Religious Action Centre, of which she is executive director, filing a supreme court petition this week challenging the make-up of the heritage foundation’s board.
“It’s a good thing that after 24 years the highest echelons in Israel are actually paying attention to this rift that is breaking diaspora Jews from Israel,” she said. “The table that should run the Western Wall should have everyone who has an interest in the wall sitting around it.”
While she said her group would be satisfied if it were allowed to pray at the wall once a month with full regalia, her religious action centre wants hours each day, between scheduled prayers, when the gender partition is removed and people can freely enjoy the site as a cultural monument.
“If in the end what happens is that the Robinson’s Arch area will be run by the Jewish Agency instead of the antiquities department, then we’re talking about who’s going to take care of the air conditioning in the back of the bus,” she said. “I don’t care about that. I don’t want to sit in the back of the bus. I want to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.”