The Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and the Diaspora Affairs believes they had found a solution to the continual battle with the Women of the Wall prayer group; the creation of a temporary egalitarian prayer site next to the Western Wall (Kotel) Plaza in Jerusalem. The ministry announced on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 that they have created a large platform of 450 square meters at Robinson's Arch south of the main plaza, which will be available for non-traditional prayers, each day of the week, 24 hours a day throughout the high holidays. The Women of the Wall stated that they will protest the announcement, through a 24-hour sit-in at the Kotel plaza.
The Robinson's Arch is in the archeological park and is referred to as the "Southern Wall." The area has been used since 1998 for equalitarian prayers with a smaller platform built in 2004, but free access has been limited to morning prayers, the remainder of the time there is an entrance fee. Usually the area is not government run or funded. The new space called "Ezrat Yisrael" can accommodate 450 worshippers.
For the month an ark with Torah scrolls, tallits, the prayer shawls and siddurs and mahzors, prayers books will be available to worshippers. However, the site does not have any direct access to the main Kotel plaza. The ministry called the area "a temporary solution to enable prayer services during the upcoming Jewish holiday season." The high holidays begin sundown on Sept. 4, with Rosh Hashannah and continue throughout the month of Tishrei. In 2004 the courts suggested that the Women of the Wall use that area for their prayer services and a small platform was built to accommodate them.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the Bayit Yehudi chairman who is also the Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, and Religious Affairs called the site an "interim" solution, stating; "The Kotel [Western Wall] belongs to all Jews, all over the world, no matter what stream of Judaism they come from…. [it] is a continuation of the Western Wall, the same wall of the [ancient Second] Temple, just a bit south. Egalitarian Jews are now able to pray at a respectable place." Bennett and his party faithful are mostly Orthodox.
The Kotel is administered by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the head of Western Wall Heritage Foundation and under Orthodox Jewish law, which prevents other more liberal Judaic traditions from praying there if they choose not to abide by Orthodox customs. Bennett also wants a legal statute to officially state that the Kotel's plaza is exclusively an area for Orthodox prayer. However, the creation of that law would require Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's approval; the two cabinet members disagree about the issue, which may make approval difficult.
The feminist prayer that the Women of the Wall are practicing is a form of liberal prayer that does not conform to the Kotel's norm. Israel's Haredi, ultra-Orthodox object to the women's praying because they choose to wear tallits; praying shawls, and teffilin, which according to the Jewish orthodox tradition are religious garments only men are allowed to wear during prayer, and have been considered illegal for women to wear by Israeli laws. The women also read the Torah, another ritual activity that only men do. Additionally the women read their prayers out loud, which is the reason the women have been arrested in the past for disturbing the peace.
The announcement of the temporary prayer site caused an immediate uproar from the Women of the Wall group and liberal Jewish denominations primarily the Conservative and Reform movements. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Ultra-Orthodox, see the solution as a victory
A government official stated that the prayer space was considerate, saying; "Do you see the State of Israel in today's Middle East building a new platform that's adjacent to the Western Wall? The Reform and Conservative [movements] understand that. No one says this is a permanent solution, but it's respectable, accommodating and nice, and more than [egalitarian Jews] have ever had at the Kotel."
The Women of the Wall announced they will partake in a 24-hour sit-in to protest the government's decision. Women of the Wall's head Anat Hoffman released her reactions in a video message posted on the group's website and YouTube. She stated; "The government of Israel decided as a 'gift' for Rosh Hashana to solve the issue… by building this sunbathing deck." Continuing she said the area is not equalitarian, but "is a way of building a second-rate Wall for second-rate Jews. I refuse to accept it."
Hoffman refuted that "This is no solution. This is actually a symbolic representation of how little Israel thinks of the diversity in the Jewish world." Then she announced the Women of the Wall would hold a 24-hour sit-in at the Kotel plaza starting Sunday evening;
"We will sleep there, we will eat there, we will drink there, we will use the toilet there."
The pro-traditionalist Jewish women's group Women for the Wall denounced the Women of the Wall's protests, saying the Kotel is no place for politics. Ronit Peskin the co-founder of the group stated; "Jerusalem is not Selma, and this issue cannot be compared to the fight for civil rights in the US… The Kotel is a holy site and a symbol of unity for Jews worldwide, and it should not be used to promote the political agenda of any specific group. They should take their business to the Knesset where it belongs."
Despite calls not to, the Women of the Wall proceeded with their sit-in that started Sunday evening and ended early on Monday afternoon. Only about 20 women joined the group's leaders to participate in this protest. They "prayed, studied and sang" had a prayer service in the women's section, which they ended with blowing the shofar.
The Women of the Wall also had a press conference Sunday afternoon next to the new prayer area, advocating a boycott, and released a statement saying; "The government of Israel decided as a ‘gift’ for Rosh Hashana to solve the issue… by building this sunbathing deck.... Women of the Wall rejects the Mandelblit plan which dangerously circumvents the pluralist Sobel District Court decision. We are at a crossroads for religious freedom and freedom of expression in Israel…. The stage is in no way equal topographically or geographically to the original plaza, not does it come close to the Wall itself, as it stands to the back of the Robinson's Arch area. This plan is the very definition of separate, and not nearly close to equal, it provides an out of sight- out of mind solution silencing women at the Western Wall.
The Robinson's Arch area has been mentioned as a solution to the often violent confrontations the Women of the Wall meet each month as they gather for their monthly prayer services for Rosh, Chodesh, marking the beginning of the Jewish month. Officially, however, Naftali Bennett stated they were not the main reason behind for the holiday equalitarian prayer area; "I didn't expect everyone to accept the plan. It was not targeted at 20 to 30 specific people… but at the mainstream of Jews who want to pray together with their families. I invite all Jews to come to pray at the Kotel."
Writing on Facebook, Sunday evening Bennett explained further the reasoning behind the creation of the platform for the holidays, saying that it was done to accommodate all Jews. He wrote; "In recent years, a lot of tension has been created around the Western Wall. A large part of the public - and I am specifically not referring to the 'Women of the Wall' but to the Jewish people as a whole - feels that it is difficult to come to the Western Wall. That they don't connect. There are many Jewish denominations in the world, and the majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora are not Orthodox. As the Minister for Diaspora Affairs I believe the Western Wall belongs to all the Jews in the world, not to one denomination or the other."
Nathan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit have dueling ideas and proposals with how to deal with the confrontations taking place in the Western Wall Plaza each month with the Women of the Wall's prayer meeting and ultra-Orthodox protesters. Their proposals would solve the problems and demands with equalitarian prayer groups.
Sharansky still intends to release his official plans by the end of the month, but he praised the interim solution, saying; "This temporary prayer plaza is a gesture of goodwill on behalf of Minister Bennett towards Judaism's religious streams. It is my hope that this step can be helpful in creating an atmosphere of good will and trust."
Mandelbilt and a committee will also release a proposal that might resemble Bennett's interim solution, but will permanently create a space at Robinson's arch for equalitarian prayer that is not associated with any denomination, and would allow anyone Jew to pray, regardless of tradition or affiliation.
Bennett in his original statement announcing the new prayer space said it was created "in conjunction with the Prime Minister's Office and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky." The Prime Minister's Office however, released a clarification that was not decision made by the whole government, writing; "Contrary to reports, there is no new government decision regarding prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. The committee appointed by the Prime Minister to look into the matter, has yet to conclude its work. Once it does so, it will submit its recommendations to the Prime Minister."
In December 2012 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Nathan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel to submit a proposal for an alternative solution that would end the fighting over the women's group's monthly prayers at the Kotel. The creation of a plan has received wide support from American Jews, where a majority of the Jewish population belongs to non-Orthodox denominations.
Nathan Sharansky's proposal would create two separate areas for prayer, one for Orthodox prayer, and the second an egalitarian space that would allow different religious denominations and traditions a place to pray. The proposal consists of "an area equal in size and elevation to the existing prayer zone; secure, common, and equal physical access to both the gender-segregated and the egalitarian/pluralistic areas on a 24/7/365 basis; common entries to the public plaza leading to all sections." The proposal would also add representatives from the Conservative and Reform movements to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the Kotel and the plaza.
The implementation would be in two phases, the first would be completed in a year, which would redirect traffic pathways and divide the present plaza between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The second phase would take an additional year and involves the archeological park and retaining Muslim controlled areas near Al Aksa Mosque compound to expand the Kotel plaza. The designation of an egalitarian space would prevent further controversies and protests, because there would be set place for prayer that would not interfere with the ultra-Orthodox.
The Women of the Wall have been attending their monthly prayer service at the Kotel for 25 years. Formed in 1988, the group of women is predominately composed of Americans Jews that have moved to Israel of liberal denominations and women rabbis, but also some who are traditionalists. The group sees their largest support in North America. Since their formation, they have been fighting for their legal right to gather and pray publicly at the Kotel, Western Wall's women's section. A 2003 a court ruling and a 2005 order from the Justice Minister made non-Orthodox prayer practices illegal within the Western Wall Plaza.
This past winter there was increased number of arrests and detainments resulting from their monthly gatherings. The tide turned when three liberal members of the Knesset joined the group for their prayers in March. In April 2013, five women of the group had been arrested, but a magistrate's court ruled that the women are not breaking Israeli laws regarding the Western Wall by praying at the Kotel wearing the religious garments, and publicly reading the Torah, and are not disturbing the public, dismissing all the charges. Later in the month the Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel up held the magistrates court's ruling ensuring that members of the Women of Wall would no longer be arrested or detained for participating in their monthly prayer service.
The court ruling ended the rash of arrests for civil disobedience that have threatened the women's service each month. However, the clashes with ultra-Orthodox protesters continued the next month in May, and also in July and most recently in August, only in June were the services held without any protest. However, the past two months in order to avoid major confrontations the Women of the Wall were relegated to pray away from women's section, but still in the main plaza.
Bennett stated that ultimately the decision to create the prayer space was to promote peace and end conflicts between Orthodox, and other denominations at the New Year. He explained; "On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we decided to put an end to the conflict at the remnant of our Temple. I will not let infighting among the Jewish people continue before Rosh Hashanah. Our energy must be directed toward prayer, forgiveness and unity, as well as maintaining the status quo at the Western Wall."
Bennett is right, the Women of the Wall have been fighting too long, against traditions that are thousands of years old. The Kotel is the holiest place, and their bids for feminism and equality have no place there. They should for the New Year cease their continuous fights and compromise, because continuing the fighting only shows world Jewry their mission has nothing to do with the right to prayer, but everything to do with having it their own way no matter what.
- Women of the Wall, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.