Longtime Israel watchers are very aware of the politics surrounding religious practice in the Jewish state, where Orthodox Judaism has long been privileged. Laws forbidding women to pray with Torahs at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, known as the Kotel, have been a sore point for years among liberal Jews from abroad and — increasingly — women within Israel itself.
But nothing prepared us for the treatment reportedly suffered by activist Anat Hoffman after her arrest last week at the Kotel (See story, 12).
The Women of the Wall founder has been ushered away from the Kotel many times over more than two decades, sometimes harshly, though she had never been arrested. According to Hoffman, police at the station ordered her to strip naked, then dragged her across a floor, leaving her bruised. Her crime: wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and uttering the Shema out loud at Judaism’s holiest site.
To be fair, a police spokesman said Hoffman’s claims were “not accurate.” However, Hoffman is a brave woman of great integrity, and we believe her.
So do many secular and religious Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, one of the few Orthodox groups to speak up for freedom of religious expression for women at the Kotel.
Because of the Kotel’s unique place within Judaism as a sacred remnant of the Second Temple period, the politics surrounding it are sensitive. That does not diminish the fact that the holy site belongs to all Jews everywhere. No single religious entity should arrogate to itself the terms of its administration.
Yet that is precisely the situation we have today. The ultra-Orthodox call the shots at the Kotel, and the police go along with it. This is probably the path of least resistance, one that has seemed to minimize turmoil at the heavily trafficked (and touristed) site.
Unfortunately, turmoil will persist no matter what. Either women like Hoffman will continue to risk arrest as they press for the right to pray at the Kotel according to their own practice; or the laws will be changed, women will be granted expanded rights, and the ultra-Orthodox will protest vigorously, perhaps violently. It’s happened before.
Yes, Jerusalem is a unique place. Yes, the sensitivities of all players must be taken into account. But in this case, the arc of justice bends toward the inalienable rights of Jewish women. If they are not free to practice Judaism as they wish in the Jewish state, there is something terribly wrong with the picture.
For us, there is no question here. We strongly support the rights of Jewish women and demand they be granted the right to pray at the Wall in their own respectful way.