Court frees female activists, calls Western Wall arrests groundless

Judge rejects police request to bar the female worshipers from Western Wall for three months; Wall rabbi says the Women of the Wall ‘fueling hatred’

Women of the Women of the Wall organization wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall  in Jerusalem, April 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Women of the Women of the Wall organization wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, April 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered the release of five women arrested for illegal worship at the Western Wall on Thursday morning.

The women, including Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs, were arrested for praying while wearing prayer shawls during the group’s monthly Rosh Hodesh (first of the month) prayers at Judaism’s holiest site.

“There were no grounds for their arrest,” the judge ruled. “Any disruption that took place was not instigated by the defendents.”

According to the Women of the Wall, Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly said during the proceedings that “to arrest these women… is likened to blaming a rape victim for the clothing that she wears.”

Police said about 120 women, including Meretz MKs Michal Rozin and Tamar Zandberg, arrived for the prayer service.

“This reminds me of the darkest days of our history when Jews were dispossessed of religious artifacts and not allowed to worship,” said Sachs after she was arrested.

“This is completely irrational. The world didn’t collapse when women weren’t arrested last month. Police should have behaved similarly this time,” said Rozin. “It is unfathomable that in 2013, Israel is the only place in the world where Jewish women are arrested for praying.”

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, for his part, condemned the prayer gathering as a deliberate provocation at a time when authorities are working on a finding an acceptable solution to the issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be considering a proposal by the head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky to establish an egalitarian prayer plaza along part of the Western Wall.

“That they came this morning, despite the settlement efforts that Sharansky is trying to promote, is the clearest testimony that their goal is to cause dispute and hurt feelings by increasing polarization and turning the Western Wall into a battlefield for zealots,” Rabinowitz said, according to Maariv. “Instead of looking at this holy place as holy ground they are turning it into a place of contention, and their behavior fuels hatred and dispute.”

A man who tried to burn pamphlets distributed by the women and a Haredi woman who yelled abuse at the worshipers were also detained, Israel Radio reported.

Police said they would arrest other women who they videotaped transgressing the ban on women reading from the Torah or donning prayer shawls at the holy site.

“The events at the Western Wall today are one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife,” the Jewish Agency said in a statement.

Sharansky’s proposal has reportedly been approved in principle by the government, ultra-Orthodox authorities, the Women of the Wall and leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US. However, Sachs said Wednesday the “extremely ambitious” proposal could take years to implement — “if ever.”

Sachs told Israel Radio Wednesday that her organization was campaigning among Knesset members to reverse the legal amendment under which women are barred from certain practices at the Western Wall.

Sharansky is said to want to designate the area currently known as Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian services, to rename it as part of the Western Wall, to change it from a paid-entry tourism area to an open prayer site, and to directly connect it to the main Western Wall plaza. The Times of Israel has learned that the plan would see development of the Robinson’s Arch area to be equal in size to the present Western Wall prayer plaza and that both sections would share a single entrance.

Sharansky told Ynet News on Wednesday that the plan had been presented “to the government ministers, to the leaders of the Jewish movements in the US, to the Western Wall rabbi, and each of them have their own reservations but they all understand that the situation in which the Western Wall is a place of conflict and dispute must end and that it must be rebuilt as a uniting place. In this move we are providing a possibility to recreate agreement and a wide common denominator around the Western Wall.”

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said that while the new prayer area “does not match” his worldview, he supports the idea of “one site of prayer” and said that the ultra-Orthodox community “can live with this solution.” The Western Wall “has to unite the Jewish people,” he told Israel Radio on Wednesday. “It belongs to all the Jewish people… I’m seeking solutions that everyone can live with.”

If the proposal “is accepted by everyone,” if it proves feasible from archaeological, security and all other perspectives, and if it essentially moves the disputed prayer arrangements away from the area that is today designated as the Western Wall, Rabinowitz said, that would be acceptable to him. “If not,” he added, “then what have we achieved?”

On Tuesday, the Women of the Wall offered support for the plan. Sharansky’s proposal was “a wonderful message for Israelis, for Jews from abroad, for everyone,” the group’s leader Anat Hoffman said, praising him for thinking outside of the box and looking for a real solution.

Hoffman, whose group has led the struggle to open the Western Wall to nontraditional prayer, spoke to the Forward hours after Sharansky presented to American Jewish leaders part of his proposal to resolve the dispute.

The idea is “very ambitious,” Hoffman said, and represented a compromise, even it wasn’t what the group had been hoping for. “You don’t always have to be right, you have to be smart — and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here,” Hoffman said.

But Sachs on Wednesday sounded markedly less upbeat, worrying that the Sharansky solution would not be practicable in the short term while also noting that the group hadn’t seen Sharansky’s final specific suggestions, “although we were consulted” as the proposal was being prepared.

In a statement, the Jewish Agency said Sharansky hoped the proposal would “decrease the heightened tensions at the Western Wall.”

“One Western Wall for one Jewish people,” Sharansky said in the statement.

Hoffman expressed concern over what could happen before the idea is implemented, alluding to last week’s statements by Jerusalem’s police commissioner Yossi Pariente, who warned women against saying the traditional mourner’s prayer (the Kaddish). A women reciting Kaddish could be arrested, the officer explained.

Wall rabbi Rabinowitz said in contrast that women would not be arrested for saying Kaddish — after MK Alisa Lavie (Yesh Atid) intervened — but on Tuesday Pariente stated once again the Jerusalem police would enforce the law.

It was not a question of agreements between the sides involved, but of a court order that needed to be upheld, he said.

Sharansky’s suggested enlarged prayer section would be equal in size to the current men’s and women’s sections, the Forward reported on Tuesday.

As part of a previous compromise, Robinson’s Arch is open at certain times for egalitarian prayer, but it is inside an archaeological site and a fee is charged for entrance. The new proposed area would be open at all times without a fee and be essentially an extension of the the main prayer section at the Wall.

Israel Radio reported on Wednesday that the plan would involve changing the official name of the Robinson’s Arch area, named after early 19th century American biblical scholar Edward Robinson.

Sharansky stressed that the plan, which would involve renovation work in a politically and religiously sensitive site, would, in order to “not spark a conflict” with the Muslim world, not “touch one stone” of the Mughrabi bridge, which connects to the Temple Mount plaza and is adjacent to both the current Jewish prayer area at the Wall and to Robinson’s Arch.

The question of women’s and nontraditional prayer at the Western Wall is a divisive issue in the relationship between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, especially in America, where most Jews follow Reform or Conservative egalitarian practice. That’s currently forbidden at the Western Wall, which largely functions as an open-air Orthodox synagogue.

Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, in the same manner as men, as it contravenes the “local custom” determined by the Wall’s chief rabbi. In 2003, the High Court of Justice upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin (phylacteries) or tallitot.

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