Women of the Wall Vow to Fight On, Despite Court Setback

Annette Young
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Annette Young

Even praying outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem proved to be a problem yesterday for the Women of the Wall group, whose request to conduct prayer services at the Western Wall was rejected by Israel's highest judicial authority.

Outside the building, as the group - including Orthodox, Reform and Conservative women - began to recite a prayer asking "no woman or girl be silenced ever again among your people Israel," a security guard requested them to stop as it was "neither a place for demonstration nor for prayer."

As a sign of their determination, the women politely ignored the request and continued the short prayer that had been written to mark their 14-year battle with authorities for the right to pray once a month at the Western Wall.

Earlier, the group's members listened despondently as the court ruled five to four against their right to conduct prayer services with prayer shawls and read from the Torah at Judaism's holiest site.

The court instead called on the government within the next 12 months to prepare an area in nearby Robinson's Arch, just south of the Western Wall, for the group's use - a venue that has already been rejected by the group as inappropriate.

The judgement, which said that the sensitivities of other worshippers had to be taken into account, declared the women's right to pray was "not an absolute right and needed to be measured against other rights that deserve protection."

"We've been treated like second-class citizens who don't deserve the right to pray at the Kotel (the Western Wall)," one of the group's members, Batya Cohen-Kallus, told Haaretz. "Once again, it's a case of passing the buck between the court and the government."

The struggle first began in 1988, when after an international Jewish women's conference, a group of Orthodox women - with the backing of secular, Reform and Conservative Jews - decided to publicly pray at the Western Wall in the women's section.

Since then, at the beginning of every new month, the group has conducted prayer sessions, despite fierce opposition from other worshipers, including physical and verbal violence that, in some cases, has required police intervention.

The prayer sessions are conducted according to Orthodox practice. This means, for example, that they do not read out parts of prayers that require a minyan (the presence of 10 men). The women argued there was nothing in Orthodox law that forbids women from wearing prayer shawls or reading the Torah, and that the only sticking point is the law that forbids Orthodox men from listening to women's voices.

After a series of court cases, three judges from the High Court of Justice in May 2000 gave the go-ahead to the government to allow the women to pray at the Wall, while also ruling that no alternative venue, such as Robinson's Arch, would be suitable.

Realizing the sensitive nature of the decision, the government of Ehud Barak referred the matter back to the court, arguing that the case be heard instead by the full bench, whose decision was handed down yesterday.

"In this case, the government was definitely pandering to the more conservative elements of the Orthodoxy and the court is allowing them to do it," said the attorney for the women's group, Frances Reday.

"The court's decision does not reflect the fact that since this case began, there have been shifts in public opinion here in Israel and among diaspora Jewish communities - the mood has changed," Reday added.

Reday noted the growing number of women Orthodox prayer groups in places such as the United States. "It's extremely important for the Orthodoxy to give a greater place to women's spirituality - as more women seek to become full partners in the religious experience.

"It is a decision of compromise rather then a decision that fully implements human rights. And even in the political scene here in Israel, where there is growing anger about the domination of the ultra-Orthodox religious dictates, the authorities need to stop compromising."

Reday and others said it was unlikely that Robinson's Arch would be used as a venue next year given the group's opposition to the proposal, together with logistical problems that could make the area unsuitable for group prayer.

"For instance, there are a lot of stones next to the wall in that area, which would need to be removed to allow for access," Reday said. She noted that the Antiquities Authority and other organizations would not be happy if these stones were cleared, given their historic importance.

Others were quick to stress that the decision was not unanimous. "While I have mixed feelings about today's judgement, the fact that there were four judges who were against it, is a measure of success," said Labor MK Colette Avital, a supporter of the group.

While yesterday's decision was seen by the group as a setback, it only fueled their determination to pursue this to the bitter end - this time by embarking on a public campaign and lobbying Knesset members on the issue.

"We now have a new government, and it's a new reality. Thanks to the presence of Shinui, we believe there is greater openness in this government than there has ever been since we began this campaign 14 years ago," Cohen-Kallus said. "The ruling was a very mixed bag and clearly stipulates that if Robinson's Arch is not ready in 12 months time, we have the right to be back at the Kotel."

"We will win, at least in the court of public opinion, because public views have changed in the last 14 years," Cohen-Kallus declared.

A spokesman from the Prime Minister's Office refused to comment on the court's ruling.

Moshe Reinfeld adds:

Labor Party MK Isaac Herzog described yesterday's court decision as a well-balance compromise and called on the Women of the Wall to accept the proposal. Herzog, as cabinet secretary in the Barak government, was behind the move to set aside part of the Robinson's Arch site for prayer services by Conservative Jews and said yesterday that he sees no reason why the Women of the Wall should not also pray there.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall, welcomed yesterday's decision, saying that it prevented desecration of a holy site, as well as protecting the sensitivities of other worshippers. According to Rabinovich, "There is no place in the Western Wall plaza for prayers that contradict the Jewish tradition and create division and discord."

He added that female worshippers who insist on wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries are merely trying to be provocative. He called on the Women of the Wall to pray at the Western Wall plaza "in accordance with Jewish tradition."