By Phyllis Chesler
A shorter and earlier version of this piece may be found at my European-based online media outlet Human Rights Service
For years now, Israel has been routinely condemned by the United Nations for trying to defend herself; a veritable public relations hailstorm has been unleashed against the only Jewish state. Orwellian Big Lies have dominated the world media’s reportage on Israel. Jews/Zionists have been falsely accused of controlling the world, committing massacres, purposefully murdering civilians, poisoning Palestinian babies and causing Palestinian sterility, etc. Since 2005, Israeli officials have been unable to travel to Britain lest they be arrested and tried as “war criminals” in the UK.
I began actively defending Israel from the moment Arafat launched the malevolent Intifada of 2000 against her. Although anti-Semitism had been on my personal and intellectual radar since the early 1970s, it was not until the 21st century that I began to document a new and lethal form of anti-Semitism, a “perfect storm” in which fundamentalist Muslims, jihadists, and western progressives all agreed that human suffering, every world problem, was Israel’s fault, and could be corrected only if Jews were defamed, forced to suffer, and if the Jewish state were abolished. I published a book about this (The New Anti-Semitism ) in 2003.
I was demonized for breaking with the politically correct intelligentsia and thus, perhaps, have earned the right to criticize the Jewish state when such criticism is warranted. It breaks my heart to have to do so. But I must—and my criticism has absolutely nothing to do with how Israel treats the Palestinians or its own Arab citizens—which, as we all know, is far better than the way in which most Muslims are treated in Arab and Muslim countries. My criticism has everything to do with how Israel treats religious Jewish women.
Let me be clear. The utterly corrupt United Nations has not earned the right to criticize Israel; I have. If they want to challenge the internal affairs of a nation state, I suggest that they begin with the major human rights atrocities being committed in Afghanistan, Burma, China, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. And that’s just for starters. Once they have done so, I have a human rights abuse for them to explore in Israel.
Ironically, Israel does protect the holy sites of all religions in a way that no Muslim country does. Muslim governments and Muslim mobs routinely desecrate and destroy non-Muslim houses of worship, do not allow other religions to openly flourish and, in addition, persecute, abduct, exile or murder those of other faiths. Israel does not do this.
But the Jewish state does look the other way when Jewish women, who are praying in a modest and religiously acceptable fashion at Jerusalem’s Western (Wailing) Wall, are attacked, both physically and verbally, by ultra-religious goons. I am talking about Women of the Wall , a group that has now been in existence for twenty-one years.
The Western Wall is the outer remaining wall of the Second Temple and, for 2000 years, was the precise spot where exiled, Diaspora Jews longed to pray and where those who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land actually did pray.
On December 1st, 1988, I was among the women who prayed together out loud in the women’s section at the Wall for the first time in history; it was a life-changing event. Rivka Haut, the woman who organized this first prayer service, and I eventually co-wrote a book about this struggle, Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site , which we published in 2002. We dedicated the book to the State of Israel but declined to promote its ideas in the non-Jewish media given that Israel was engaged in an existential fight for its very survival.
Please understand: At the Western Wall, there is a very high barrier (a mehitza) between the male and female prayer sections. Only someone who is purposely standing on a chair can look over the barrier into the other gender’s section. The high barrier has not protected women worshippers from violence. Ultra-religious men have thrown heavy metal chairs, tear gas, garbage, and excrement at members of Women of the Wall (WOW) while they were praying; ultra-religious zealots, both male and female, have also cursed, stalked, threatened, and physically wrestled with WOW members.
In all this time, the Jewish state has never arrested an ultra-religious male or female for disturbing the peace and the prayers of our sincere and devoted female worshippers. Ultra-religious women have harassed, taunted, screamed, and tried to drown out the prayers of Women of the Wall members. They have behaved with extraordinary inhumanity towards other women. Over time, Women of the Wall members have prayed more and more quietly, as far away from the men’s section and the barrier as possible, as far away from the actual Wall as possible.
These religious women have been forced to cower, tremble, and to pray fearfully—just like Jews were once forced to do in Muslim and Arab countries. And during the Spanish Inquisition, I might add. It is an apt comparison given that Jewish and Israeli women in the twenty-first century are now literally being told to “hide” their prayer shawls (tallitot) under their coats when they approach the Wall.
Once, long ago (in 1989), the state hired female guards to drag the softly praying women away. Believe it or not, WOW members were seen as “disturbing the peace” of the real worshipers—whose concentration was too easily shattered by the very idea that women were actually praying autonomously and authoritatively.
What we were doing was never viewed as contrary to an Orthodox interpretation of religious law, but it was seen as disturbing the “sensibilities” of the haredi (ultra-religious) worshipers who, increasingly, have taken over control of the Wall and have turned it into the kind of synagogue where women are meant to pray silently, each alone, and to never, ever be heard, not even by other women. In addition, for a variety of reasons, the authorities have allowed less and less space for female worshippers. They have still not provided shelter from the elements.
WOW members are not challenging the Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish religious law). They do not count themselves as a minyan (prayer quorum). They do not want to pray with men, or in the men’s section. They do not pray from an egalitarian siddur (prayer book). What they do is precisely what many modern Orthodox rabbis the world over permit women to do in their own synagogues in all-women’s prayer groups. The only difference is that WOW members want to do this at the Western (Wailing) Wall, which is a public and national holy site.
In the past, the Turks and then the Jordanians literally treated this holy site as a garbage dump and as a latrine; during this time, both male and female Jews prayed next to each other in a narrow alley-like corridor. In 1967, in a war of self-defense, Israeli forces liberated The Wall. For at least a decade or more, many public ceremonies were held there. Once, Israeli female soldiers sang the national anthem there when they were inducted into the Army. They can do so no longer.
Anat Hoffman, a former Jerusalem City Council member, the director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, and a long-time leader of WOW, has just published a piece  in which she describes the swift and savage process by which the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) have turned the Wall into an old-fashioned synagogue in which women have increasingly less space, no shelter from the elements, and no prayer books or Torah (Old Testament) scrolls, and are thus both separate and unequal. (Men have all these amenities and more). Hoffman writes:
“There is no status quo at the Wall — things change all the time. Men and women used to enter the Western Wall plaza together through the Jewish Quarter’s Dung Gate; in 1994, separate, gender-segregated entrances were created. Within the past decade, women soldiers were still allowed to sing the national anthem during ceremonies at the Wall — now they are instructed to be content with mouthing the words.”
The Israeli Supreme Court—which has rendered so many favorable decisions on behalf of Palestinian human and civil rights—rendered three separate decisions in our case over a 13-14 year period. Ultimately, the Court decided that there was no room at the Inn of Justice for Jewish women and they exiled us to another location (an archeological site known as Robinson’s Arch) for that part of our prayer service which involves reading aloud from the Torah. In 2003, at a hearing, the Court decided that it was now illegal for Jewish women to chant aloud from a Torah and to wear prayer shawls (tallitot) at the Wall. Thus, nice Jewish girls (and much older grandmothers) would be considered criminals if they committed either of these acts, i.e., if they prayed as if they were Jews.
What’s sad: WOW was only asking for the right to pray once a month for an hour. This was still seen as threatening, “provocative,” dangerous, to the ultra-Orthodox Jews who control the holy sites. And, by the way, the women’s prayer shawls are usually lacy, frilly, colorful garments which do not look like male prayer shawls.
But, it is true: Over the years, WOW sometimes let a little tallit (prayer shawl) show; sometimes they even made spontaneous decisions to attempt a forbidden Torah-reading at the Wall as well. Not often; sometimes, when it was very quiet, almost deserted, when there did not seem to be anyone around to “offend” or “provoke.” Dangerously criminal behavior—yes?
But now, the Jewish state and the Jerusalem police have done something very cruel—the kind of thing that is only done in a radically Islamified Muslim state.
On November 18, 2009, the Jerusalem police arrested Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli fifth-year medical school student and WOW member, and interrogated her for nearly two hours; they told her that she was facing a felony charge, and that, if she were to be found guilty, she would never be able to practice medicine in Israel. Frenkel’s crime? She was wearing a prayer shawl (a tallit) without hiding it under her coat, and she was holding (but not chanting from) a Torah scroll. Frenkel has written about it here .
Then, on January 5, 2010, Anat Hoffman was arrested, detained, interrogated, and fingerprinted (!) for the crime of leading Women of the Wall.
Shame! This means that the religious authorities, with the able assistance of the state, are escalating the war against Jewish women.
In 1988, at our first prayer service, the men on the men’s side stood on chairs, tried to “rush” the women’s section, fomented a near-riot against us. At the time, I thought: “My God, they sound just like Khomeini’s men!” Since then, things have only gotten worse. For example, in 2007, a group of ultra-religious Jewish men in Jerusalem actually beat a woman for refusing to move to the back of the bus! (I am not kidding). And, in January of 2010, a sixty-year old Jerusalem woman sat down at the front of the bus. A very young man demanded that she move. She refused to do so. He began to curse her. She sprayed him with mace. The police were called. Of course, they arrested the woman, not the young man.
Women of the Wall are routinely cursed as “Nazis,” “witches,” “Christians,” “prostitutes,” “blasphemers,” “Reform” Jews–and worse.
No ultra-religious zealot has ever been arrested for violence against WOW. Only women have been arrested for “provoking” the violence and now for breaking an unjust law.
Yes, Israel stands head-and-shoulders above its neighbors when it comes to human rights and democracy, even where secular women’s rights are concerned. Compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran, Israel is a paradise on earth for women. However, just like the rest of the Middle East, and like Europe, Israel is being rapidly Arabized and Islamified in terms of women and religion.
The ultra-Orthodox view wants women to cover their hair (!), have as many children as possible, remain religiously ignorant, and work at low-level jobs in order to support husbands who study Torah. The Modern Orthodox view, as well as the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist views, are quite different and see Jewish women as fully capable of being learned and authoritative religious leaders, as well as physicians, lawyers, professors, and CEOs. They are in favor of inclusiveness and tolerance on many issues, including that of women’s role within Judaism.
It is time for the Israeli Parliament to undertake the long overdue separation of synagogue and state. Why should Israeli fundamentalists be allowed to hide behind God for the crimes that they alone are willing to commit against religious Jewish women? And why should a modern democratic state which is committed to religious pluralism empower the least tolerant of its citizens?
The matter cries out to Heaven.
Note: Women of the Wall may be reached through their website at https://womenofthewall.org.il/ .
Additional Note: Last year, Yael Katzir, a secular Israeli filmmaker, created a powerful, even shocking documentar y about our struggle (”Praying in Her Own Voice”); earlier on, Faye Lederman also did so. There are nearly 100,000 references to Women of the Wall on Google–and still we cannot pray at the Wall. .
The author retains copyright on this piece.