Opinion |

The Western Wall: Where Women Can Pray Until They're Arrested

A draft bill, promoted by the ultraOrthodox parties in the government, will turn me into a criminal. | Opinion

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
Women hold Torah scrolls as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016.
Women hold Torah scrolls as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, AP
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

In recent years I have become part of a persecuted religious minority. As a Reform Jew and an Israeli citizen, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that my country doesn’t recognize my right to marry, to divorce and to be buried as I wish, discriminates against those who belong to my religious denomination when it comes to budgeting and religious services, and in general would prefer that I disappear.

Its present rulers, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, see me as an untouchable, an apostate, an anti-Semite, a Jew-hater, a disaster for the Jewish people, and worst of all — a woman. In other words, a woman who believes that she was created in God’s image, and therefore her religious right to read aloud from a Torah scroll that she is holding in her own hands is no less than the right of a man, even in the shadow of the threatening stones of the Western Wall.

After long battles, which often ended in physical and verbal violence by ultra­Orthodox Jews against the Women of the Wall, it seemed as though a solution was about to be accepted, according to which Reform, Conservative and secular Jews, and those who believe in gender equality — in other words, most of the Jewish people here and in the Diaspora — would be moved into a kind of apartheid plaza, where they would be allowed to pray according to their outlook and their customs.

Now it turns out that that won’t happen. The draft bill “to maintain the sanctity of the Western Wall and its plaza,” which is now being promoted by Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and MK Oren Hazan (Likud) — a spiritual authority unto himself — will turn me and those like me into a criminal.

If God forbid I open a Torah scroll in the prayer area of the Kotel, which will be “any area to be determined in the future by the religious affairs minister,” I can expect six months in prison, even before I utter a word. If I read from the scroll, if I dare to pray together with my male and female friends, if I wrap myself in a tallit (prayer shawl), if I want to hold any civil ceremony on this plaza that doesn’t find favor in the eyes of the Kotel rabbi, who according to the proposed law will be the new sovereign of the site — I will find myself being led away to the police station, praying that I will be given concurrent prison terms for my various criminal offenses.

This draft bill wants to turn Israel into the only Western country where Jews do not have freedom of religion and conscience. It is anti-democratic in the most profound sense possible. If it passes it will impose the Orthodox clerical tyranny of a religious minority, which is part of an incidental political majority, on a huge group of Jews who do not support this tyranny.

But what connection is there between the initiators of this bill and basic democracy? Shas and UTJ have always excluded their female electorate from political representation. Now, by means of the power that the present coalition enables them to wield, they simply want to exclude every Jewish woman, whoever she is, and to deny her freedom of worship. The Kotel is probably only the beginning, and its plaza will give rise to the halakhic state (based on Jewish religious law) that these parties hope for.

The prime minister long ago appointed himself the leader of the Jewish people. If he intervenes in order to prevent a serious crisis between Diaspora Jewry and the local Haredi junta, that would be his last finest hour. It would be his opportunity to declare that the Western Wall does not belong to the Haredim, but to anyone who sees it as a religious, spiritual and national symbol; that divisive and benighted sanctity should not be decided by law; and that we should immediately return to a solution that respects all the denominations in Judaism.

It’s doubtful that he will meet that challenge. The integrity of the coalition is of course more important than the Jewish people, who are of interest only for the purpose of speeches and donations. And women? Who cares: Let them pray until the police van arrives.