Female Worshipers Searched at Western Wall Despite Supreme Court Ban

'This was directed at us,' says chairwoman of the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall hold their monthly prayer service at the security checkpoint by the Western Wall, January 19, 2017.
Courtesy of Women of the Wall

Participants in a service held by Women of the Wall were subjected to body searches upon arrival to the Jewish holy site on Thursday morning, despite a recent Supreme Court decision.

In protest, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group decided, in an unprecedented move, to hold its monthly service at the security checkpoint at the entrance to the site rather than at the women’s section of the Western Wall, as it has been doing for the past 28 years.

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Last week, three Supreme Court justices ruled that women should no longer be subjected to body searches when entering the Western Wall. Participants in the monthly prayer services have in recent months been pulled aside during security checks and forced to take off parts of their clothing to determine whether they were smuggling in Torah scrolls in violation of rules at the Jewish holy site. These unusual body searches were conducted at the instruction of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall. 

On Thursday morning, all women entering the Western Wall were asked to remove their coats. None, however, were pulled aside and instructed to undress further.

“As we interpret the decision handed down last week, what happened today constitutes a search, and we intend to lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Justice against the Kotel rabbi for violating the ruling,” Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall told Haaretz.

Israeli members of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall, pray outside of the Western Wall plaza, in the Old city of Jerusalem on January 19, 2017, after security forces denied the group, that is demanding equal prayer rights at the site, from entering the premises. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX
THOMAS COEX/AFP

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Several dozen women attended Thursday morning’s service, which marked the start of the new Jewish month of Shvat.

“I know that women entering the Western Wall yesterday were not asked to remove their coats, and I am sure that they will not be asked to tomorrow,” said Hoffman. “So as we see it, this was directed at us.”

Asked if participants in Thursday morning’s prayer service had attempt to bring Torah scrolls in with them, she said: “Of course. We will always try.”

Rabinowitz, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – the institution in charge of religious protocol at the site – does not allow worshipers to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Kotel. He does, however, maintain a stock of several dozen scrolls in the men’s prayer area for use at the site. Repeated requests by women’s groups to gain access to these scrolls have been denied.

In response to a question from Haaretz, Rabinowitz insisted the Supreme Court decision does not change the status quo since it only instructs him to refrain from “beyond the ordinary” security checks.

“This morning, several women came to the checkpoint with large objects, possibly Torah scrolls, hidden under their coats in violation of existing regulations,” he said. “These woman were asked to show what they had under their coats, and were it to turn out that these were Torah scrolls or other suspicious objects that posed a security risk, they would not have been permitted to bring them in.” Rather than go through the security checks, he said, the women chose to pray outside the traditional prayer plaza.

“We regret these ongoing provocations by this group of women, which distract the security and law enforcement authorities from their work,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision last week came in response to a petition demanding that women be allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Western Wall. It was submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice, an organization that promotes women’s rights in Israel, on behalf of a group of women who split off from Women of the Wall and founded their own organization, which they call Original Women of the Wall. The split was prompted by a decision taken by Women of the Wall's board to enter into negotiations with the government over the plan for the egalitarian prayer space, which would have forced the group to move their monthly services out of the women's section.

The court gave the respondents – Rabinowitz, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Ministry for Religious Services, and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s office – 30 days to explain why the petitioners cannot bring Torah scrolls into the women’s section.