Western Wall Plaza

Women of the Wall and the Fight for Jewish Sacred Space

The Kotel – Western Wall – in the Old City of Jerusalem has been long considered among Jews to be of particular religious and cultural significance as the remains of the Second Temple.  It is a site of pilgrimage and prayer for millions each year, many who leave small written prayers in its crevices.  The plaza, created by razing scores of homes in the Mughribi Quarter shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is presently a tourist destination for people from around the world as well as a sacred space for observant Jews.

On a typical day, the Western Wall plaza is crowded with busloads of tourists, Israeli school groups, active duty soldiers and locals milling about absorbing the solemnity of the space. Closer to the wall is a place reserved for those seeking to pray without distraction from other visitors. This space is partitioned by amechitza, which segregates men and women worshippers in accordance withHalakha, Jewish religious law. In this space, women are permitted to pray; however, based on the rulings of the Rabbi of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court of Israel, women are barred from wearing tallitot (pray shawls), blowing theshofar (ram’s horn), singing or reading from the Torah.

Over the past twenty-five years, Women of the Wall (WoW), a group of Jewish women from around the world and across the various religious movements within Judaism, have held prayer services in the women’s section of the Kotel as an open challenge to the gender-based prohibitions on worship. Women from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism converge at WoW actions in order to express a commonality of purpose; namely that Jewish women have the indisputable right to engage in religious practice at the most sacred site in Judaism.

While WoW activists hold events at various times throughout the year, Rosh Chodesh – the first day of each lunar month in the Hebrew calendar – has come to serve as a regular occasion for WoW actions at the Kotel. The choice of Rosh Chodesh as a WoW day of action is particularly appropriate given that the holiday celebrates the arrival of the new moon; often associated with the feminine aspects of creation. Furthermore, the midrash Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer explains that Rosh Chodesh commemorates the steadfast refusal of Israelite women to surrender their gold for the building of an idol during the exodus from Egypt. During the WoW actions, Jewish women who engage in any form of religious expression beyond silent prayer are subjected to removal and detention by the Israeli police for engaging in religious practice at the Western Wall.

In recent months, the WoW activities at the Kotel have received a more severe and high-profile response from the Israeli authorities. In October 2012, according to media reports,  WoW Chairwoman Anat Hoffman was not only removed from the Kotel, but arrested, strip-searched and chained by the Israeli police.  Over the next few months, WoW activism was met with increased media coverage that highlighted the treatment of WoW activists. This included the December 2012arrest of prominent New Jersey Rabbi Elyse Frishman and, perhaps most notably, the February 2013 detention of 10 WoW activists including Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman.

Despite the centrality of Jerusalem’s Kotel to Women of the Wall’s activism, the struggle for recognition of women’s rights to participate in worship at the Western Wall has expanded far beyond the confines of the Old City of Jerusalem. Solidarity minyanim – groups of ten adult Jews required for public prayer – have been held by  Jewish women in LondonNew YorkWashington, D.C.Cleveland, and Fort Lauderdale along with other cities. These solidarity prayer sessions, in conjunction with the increased media coverage of WoW actions, have put renewed pressure on the Netanyahu government to find an accommodation that satisfies all parties involved. To date, such a solution has proven elusive. Yet despite the continued crackdown on WoW activities, there is much that can be gleaned from their efforts.

While the struggle of WoW activists provides general insights into how small groups of activists engage in acts of civil disobedience in order to raise awareness and effect political change, the particular actions of WoW also reveal a set of undercurrents that have long defined the relationship between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism as well as the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews.

Rather than viewing WoW’s actions as isolated, it is more appropriate to view WoW activism as yet another front in the struggle over who has authoritative power within Judaism, particularly within Israeli society.  For example, the question of whether religious students should perform mandatory national servicehas long plagued the Israeli political system. Similarly, Orthodox Judaism has maintained a controlling voice in decisions surrounding marriageconversion andimmigration in Israel; a system that effectively denies the perspectives of Conservative, Reform or secular Jews both in Israel and around the world. In their struggle for equity in religious practice, Women of the Wall’s activism heralds a new era of multi-vocality within Judaism and presents a significant challenge to the hegemonic position held by Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

Originally published by Anthropology News – Online

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October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.