Women of the Wall, 1; Haredi Protests, 0: Is Israel's Religion-state Status Quo Facing Upheaval?

Just two months ago, police were arresting the very women they protected on Sunday for wrapping themselves in prayer shawls and phylacteries at the very same spot.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The story of Sunday morning's events at the Western Wall is that there was no story.

About 300 Women of the Wall prayed in their own way, wrapped in prayer shawls and donning phylacteries, in the main women's section. Several dozen meters from there, about 200 Haredim demonstrated. Hundreds of police stood between the camps, enforcing the law and keeping alert for friction that never materialized. Even four errant eggs that landed next to the group of men who support the Women of the Wall, and several shouts of "gevalt," did not disturb the calm.

And the calm was exemplary. When the prayer session ended, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said that it was "a historic prayer." In recent months she has repeatedly used the word "historic" to describe the events surrounding her group, and this time she may be right. The women prayed aloud in front of the Kotel, and there was an upheaval of the status quo at the site. They prayed almost undisturbed, closer than ever to the stones of the wall, with a police force protecting their right to pray in their own way, a right which is now anchored in a ruling of the Jerusalem District Court.

For anyone who has managed to forget, up until two months ago the Jerusalem District police used to arrest those same women for wrapping themselves in prayer shawls and phylacteries, on exactly the same spot. The official Haredi leadership tried to present a demonstration of force against the Women of the Wall, and was exposed in its disgrace. It was a resounding demonstration of weakness.

The leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, ordered the United Torah Judaism party to send older and married students to the Wall (in order to prevent a violent confrontation with younger men), and they never arrived. The Haredi press announced in advance that tens of thousands of people would flood the Wall, and in the end there were about 200 demonstrators, who were not organized and lacked any leadership.

The failure greatly damaged the efforts of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, to prove publicly that a change in the status quo at the Kotel would exact an intolerable cost in violent confrontations and disorderly conduct. As opposed to last month, there were no confrontations. Everything proceeded smoothly. At the moment the Haredi leadership is facing a dilemma – should they call off the protest, or intensify it significantly and turn Rosh Hodesh Av (the first day of the next Hebrew month) into an event that will be etched in people's awareness, a demonstration of all the religious denominations, perhaps with the participation of the rabbis and politicians?

Meanwhile, the calm that characterized the prayer Sunday morning is a badge of honor for the police, who enforced Judge Moshe Sobel's problematic ruling without anyone getting hurt. The police learned the lesson from last time, instituted a well planned network of barriers and crossings at the Kotel, made sure to guard the convoy of buses bringing in the women and prevented friction (but didn't prevent the two sides from complaining).

No less important, this calm puts the government's efforts to find an intermediate and long-term solution to the issue of the Women of the Wall in a new light. This morning saw a relaxation of the pressure on Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and on the outgoing and incoming government secretaries, Zvi Hauser and Avichai Mandelblit, to formulate new regulations to define what is permitted and forbidden at the Kotel.

Suddenly there is almost no pressure to enforce the expensive and ambitious compromise proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, which has already been adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to build a third, egalitarian prayer area at the southern wall. Since Judge Sobel's ruling, this plan has consistently declined in importance. The police are hoping the government will nevertheless find a permanent solution for the problems at the Kotel, but Sunday morning we received a reminder of the fact that the status quo is not waiting for "historic" decisions, but is shaped by actual events on the ground.

If Rosh Hodesh Av (on July 8) looks like Rosh Hodesh Tammuz (of June 9), we can say that the status quo on issues of religion and state is not only undergoing an upheaval, it is changing in front of our amazed eyes.

A member of Women of the Wall praying with police protection in Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal

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