Women of the Wall Divided as Dissenters Refuse to Budge From Women’s Section

'No plan to which others might agree will affect our right to pray in our custom at the Kotel,' say activists who oppose egalitarian area plan.

A group of Women of the Wall activists who reject moving the group’s monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian space, told Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday they are determined to continue praying, as they have for the past 25 years, at the women’s section of the Western Wall.

“We firmly commit to upholding the right of Jewish women to assemble together in peace and dignity for prayer at the Kotel in our custom: Reading from a Torah scroll, and with the option of wrapping in tallit and tefillin,” they wrote in the letter. “Nothing has changed or will change this basic position. No plan to which others might agree will affect our right to pray in our custom at the Kotel, historic site of Jewish gathering, connection, and memory.”

Twenty individuals, among them some of the founding members of Women of the Wall, have signed the letter. In recent weeks, this splinter group has been actively campaigning against the decision by the Women of the Wall board to negotiate with the government over the possibility of moving their monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian area, separate from the mens-only and womens-only sections. Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman led the board to a 8-2 vote in favor of entering negotiations.

Most of the dissenters live outside Israel but they plan to take part in at least some of the celebrations next week, marking the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, according to Cheryl Birkner Mack, who recently resigned from the board in protest.

“The government proposes making structural changes at Robinson’s Arch to create a site to which all whose prayer practice is not tolerated by those who now control the Kotel will be relegated, leaving the Kotel permanently and officially in the hands of a segment of Jewry that suffers the presence of other Jews only on its terms,” the dissenters wrote in their letter to Bennett.  “Regrettably, the Israeli government is yielding to intimidation, threats, and violence as the basis for policy making, rather than upholding the equality of rights of all citizens in public space that is enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, in rewarding threats and intimidation, the Israeli government betrays its responsibility to guarantee all Jews access to Judaism's holy site.”

Earlier this week, the Women of the Wall board presented a list of demands to the government for moving their prayer service to the new mixed space. Among other stipulations, they have demanded a key role in designing and administering the new space. They are also demanding, as a pre-condition for negotiations, that until the new space is completed, they be allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section and that the government take active steps to put an end to ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against them there.

AP
Michal Fattal