Move over, Western Wall. The primary battleground in Israel’s religious gender segregation wars is a bridge to the popular pilgrimage site during this week’s Lag Ba’omer holiday.
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Following pressure from a women’s advocacy group, the Religious Services Ministry has declared that a publicly funded bridge to the site of a rabbi’s tomb, near the town of Meron, must stop being reserved exclusively for men.
Each year, tens of thousands of worshippers – primarily but not exclusively ultra-Orthodox Jews – make the trip to northern Israel to mark the anniversary of the death of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai with ceremonies, bonfires and all-night partying.
The gathering has evolved into a massive festival, with revelers crowding the passage leading from the parking area to the site of Bar Yochai’s tomb.
In 2012, an alternative route was built by the authorities, in order to accommodate the wishes of ultra-Orthodox men who felt the crowded conditions in the passage violated their community’s sense of modesty. A temporary structure erected for the holiday and taken down afterward, the pedestrian pathway is known as the Mehadrin Bridge.
Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, told Haaretz that her group has been lobbying the ministry for several years to end the exclusion of women on the structure, which she said was funded with government money and was, therefore, in the public sphere.
“For the past four years we have asked them to make sure the bridge is open also for women,” she said, adding, “We are a democratic country that uses its funds to protect all its citizens and refuses to discriminate against and exclude women.”
A letter sent by the Religious Services Ministry’s legal adviser, attorney Israel Patt, to the office of religious services declared that “there isn’t and will not be any impediment to the use of” the Mehadrin Bridge by women.
He stressed, however, that the main route to the tomb was “the most appropriate, comfortable and shortest way there,” and that route “is used by the general public, and has never and never will exclude women.”
As for the more controversial Mehadrin Bridge, he said, “According to what we have been told by the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, [which is] responsible for managing the site on Lag Ba’omer, there is not and will not be any prevention of the access of women.”
The letter pledged that it would “be made clear on the pathway that it is open to all who wish to use it.”
The matter has been reported in a clearly resentful tone in the Haredi press. An article on the Hadrei Haredim website noted that “this fuss has been caused by the same group of women who have caused a fuss” at the Western Wall, calling them a “Reform” group that “continues to inflame and invade the lifestyles of the Haredi population of Israel.”
Weiss rejected that characterization and said the “State of Israel must stand up for its values and show that it won’t kowtow to claims of multiculturalism.”