Opinion

One Year On, Women of the Wall Demand What the Israeli Government Promised

For 365 days, we have prayed in the knowledge that bullies as elevated as ministers of state and as lowly as teenagers working for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation have established mob rule at Judaism’s most holy site.

Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in November 2016.
Michal Fattal

As a very young woman, I came to Israel on a work-study year and fell in love with the country and with my Moroccan-born husband. A few years later we were married and living in Beer Sheva, where he was a student at Ben-Gurion University and I worked as a social worker. Feminism hadn’t arrived in Beer Sheva, as I found out when I asked for a local tax reduction provided to new olim. I was told I wasn’t eligible because, despite being the only breadwinner, I wasn’t “the head of the family.”

We joined a young Masorti (Conservative) synagogue, Eshel Avraham, then conducting services in a bomb shelter, and there I met people who spoke the same language as I did. I don’t mean English. 

When my second daughter, Ronit, became a bat mitzvah in 2000, we wanted to buy a tallit with special significance. As it happened, we picked up the beautiful, hand-embroidered Women of the Wall talit in Jerusalem just as the organization celebrated a landmark court decision.

Fast forward to 2009. When women began being arrested for wearing tallitot and donning tefillin, the Masorti Movement, until then a passive supporter, became active and with them, I attended my first WOTW service. The rest is history/herstory.

I couldn’t bear the notion that women in Israel were being arrested for a ritual I had been performing as second nature for years. Sometimes women were arrested because the tallit wasn’t being worn like a scarf, sometimes because it was defined as a ‘male’ tallit. Sometimes it seemed women were arrested for no particular reason.

In April 2013, Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that women do not disturb the peace by wearing tallit and tefillin and went further, deciding that the “local custom” of the Wall is not necessarily Orthodox custom. Having prayed there continuously for 25 years, he wrote, WOTW had established its own local custom.

The ultra-Orthodox went wild. The police, who previously had tried to catch us with tallit and tefillin, were there to protect us from violence and abuse.

The Israeli government initiated negotiations to resolve the conflict. Natan Sharansky was appointed to oversee negotiations at which then-cabinet secretary (and current Attorney General) Avichai Mendelblit represented the state. The Masorti and Reform movements joined forces with Women of the Wall to negotiate what we hoped would bring justice to the entire Jewish world – the same Jewish world for whom Prime Minister Netanyahu claims to speak.

Eventually we came to an agreement: The southern end of the Kotel, known as Robinson’s Arch, would be developed, creating three equally grand access points to a larger holy site, at which Women of the Wall could pray according to our custom in a women’s minyan and other liberal Jewish groups could worship in pluralistic minyanim.

On January 31, 2016, in a courageous and historic decision, the government voted 15-5 to approve the plan. Sadly, it was a too good to be true. Since then, ultra-Orthodox politicians and rabbis threatened to topple the government if the plan would be executed. Prime Minister Netanyahu acquiesced.

The past year has been anguishing for Women of the Wall. Protestors blowing whistles in our ears have been met by passive, sometimes sneering police. We have been hit and frisked and kicked. The Supreme Court issued an injunction to stop the Western Wall rabbi’s minions from conducting humiliating body searches on us, and still we were asked to open our coats if we wanted to get into the Western Wall; they weren’t looking for weapons, they were searching for a Torah scroll. We refused.

Women of the Wall have been praying every month for twenty-eight years. For one of those years, we have prayed in the knowledge that bullies as elevated as ministers of state and as lowly as teenagers working for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation have established mob rule at Judaism’s most holy site.

I’ve often been accused of being a nave American. Usually, there’s a negative connotation. I am a proud Israeli, as are my three sabra children, who are also active in the Masorti movement. Activism gives me hope that my country will come to its senses. I can’t accept that the Kotel agreement will not be implemented.

As a Jew and as an Israeli, I ask that the prime minister implement the decision initiated and voted on by his own government.  I expect our political and religious leaders to uphold basic human and Jewish values of honesty and respect for many Jewish traditions. Our people deserve no less.

Linda Avitan is a social worker and family therapist. She has been on the Women of the Wall Board since 2014 and is co-chairwoman of Adat Shalom-Emanuel, a Masorti congregation in Rehovot.