A prominent Israeli feminist organization is threatening to defy any restrictions on women’s prayer at the Western Wall that might emerge from a new agreement scheduled to come up for a vote in the government on Sunday.
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The Center for Women’s Justice said it would oppose any deal that prevents women from praying out loud as a group in the existing women’s section as well as any deal that prevents them from wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries while they pray.
“The government can’t compromise the rights of its citizens just to solve political problems,” said the organization’s executive director Susan Weiss in a statement. “In a democratic state, there are certain things that are not up for sale.” The Center for Women’s Justice stopped short of saying whether it would challenge the new agreement, once it was approved, in court.
As reported in Haaretz earlier this week, the government plans to vote on Sunday on a plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold mixed services for men and women. The new prayer space will be accessed through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated areas and will be equally visible, under the terms of the new agreement.
Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, has agreed, as part of the deal, to move the monthly prayer service they have been holding for 25 years at the women’s section to the new egalitarian space. According to the deal, women will from be allowed to pray out loud in a group and wear prayer shawls and phylacteries in the new egalitarian section – but no longer in the existing all-women’s section.
This controversial decision taken last year by the Women of the Wall board was rejected by some of the organization’s founders, who have since split off and started their own group known as Original Women of the Wall. Responding to reports about the new agreement, Cheryl Birkner Mack, a spokeswoman for Original Women of the Wall, expressed great dismay. “It means betrayal of the principles of Women of the Wall,” she told Haaretz. “It means negating our rights upheld in the Israeli courts. It means denying women the right to pray where they want, when they want, how they want. It means second-class status not only for women, but also for Masorti, Reform and many Orthodox Jews.”
Two months ago, the Center for Women’s Justice filed a petition in the High Court challenging the legality of denying women to Torah scrolls at the Western Wall. The petition was filed on behalf of a group of activists in Original Women of the Wall.
This petition was one of the reasons the government recently intensified its efforts to reach a deal on the new egalitarian space. Another reason was that it was determined to have the deal finalized before Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who played an instrument role in negotiating it, assumed his new position as attorney general.