To what lengths will patriarchal power and arrogance go to retain its hegemony? We are finding out as the struggle for women’s prayer plays out at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, at Judaism’s most holy site and national monument.

Since 1988, Women of the Wall (WOW), a prayer group of women from all streams of Judaism (including Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated women), has met at the Kotel to welcome each new month in prayer. It’s very simple. They wish to pray with prayer shawls, read from the Torah and pray aloud, as men are able to do freely on the other side of the partition (mechitza), which separates men and women according to Orthodox customs. This bothers the ultra-Orthodox power that reigns, which has made the Kotel its private synagogue, upsetting them to apoplectic proportion.

Despite the sick behavior of these people when the women pray—the shouting, the throwing of chairs over the mechitza into the women’s section, the curses (Whores! Nazis! May you die an early death!), and the bone-chilling threats, their power in Israel over religious matters has remained unchecked, and resulted in the banishment of WOW and non-Orthodox movements’ prayer services to an archeological site south of the Kotel, called Robinson’s Arch (RA), in 2003.

What’s wrong with using Robinson’s Arch (RA), a small area separated from the main Kotel plaza? The notion that Jewish women, who are perfectly within their rights to pray as they wish, must accept a separate and unequal space is untenable. Yet Rabbi Rabinowitz, the government-paid administrator of the Kotel, insists that RA (considered “the back of the bus” by all reasonable measures) is good enough for WOW and non-Orthodox Jews. The fact that ultra-Orthodox men won’t pray there themselves, not even one hour a month so WOW can pray at main section of the Kotel, speaks volumes.

Unwilling to bow to the power and privilege of ultra-Orthodox men, Women of the Wall continue to pray monthly, never wavering from its mission to secure the religious rights of women. Over the past three years, women have engaged in non-violent civil disobedience by openly wearing prayer shawls, praying as a group, and carrying a Torah in the women’s section. In response, Rabbi Rabinowitz has unilaterally instituted tighter restrictions, and the Jerusalem police have carried out his bidding with gusto. Prayer shawls are now confiscated at the entrance to women’s section, and women who sneak their prayer shawls past the guards are picked off mid-prayer and detained. Over fifty arrests of women have occurred in the past year.

Support for Women of the Wall has grown as monthly arrests spark outrage, with letters, petitions, and emails sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu. They hold pray-ins and sing-ins in front of the Israeli embassy and its consulates, much to the consternation of Israeli diplomats.

In December 2012, PM Netanyahu appointed Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky (former Soviet dissident) to find a solution to the problem. Sharansky met with leaders of WOW, ultra-Orthodox groups, and with the other major Jewish movements (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.) and last week unveiled his plan.

According to chair of WOW Anat Hoffman, who spoke last week via conference call to the New Israel Fund, and yesterday to the Union for Reform Judaism, the plan calls for opening up the area of the Kotel plaza and extending the length of the Kotel to Robinson’s Arch. It includes a single entrance for all and 24/7 access.

The current portion of what is now the Kotel could remain under the jurisdiction of Rabinowitz’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which collects vast sums of money from often unwitting Diaspora Jews to maintain its hegemony. Robinson’s Arch would be raised up topographically to be on par with the Kotel area to create a larger, continuous stretch of Kotel. The newer raised-up section designated for egalitarian mixed gender prayer might fall under the aegis of the Jewish Agency. This leaves some confusion about how and where women-only, and Orthodox-inclusive, Women of the Wall would pray. It could be that, despite the compromise, the power of the ultra-Orthodox men might remain intact at the original site, where Orthodox women would continue to be subjected to gross misogyny in that section.

According to Hoffman, Sharansky’s plan will face many obstacles. The plan must be reviewed by Israel’s Department of Antiquities, accepted by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (which claims jurisdiction over the Mughrabi bridge located between the Wall and Robinson’s Arch), and Israeli citizens must be willing to spend millions of shekels to accommodate ultra-Orthodox “sensibilities.” Successful implementation of Sharansky’s plan could take years. But given that some progress has been made, “WOW refuses to be one of those obstacles,” Hoffman said.

Of course, a more cost-effective and common sense option would be for Jews to share time, rather than space, at the Kotel.

Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations, issued this statement:

“We are excited about the possibility of a more pluralist Kotel plan. This shows great advances for Israel, and we are proud to be a part of that. However, such a plan does not change the fact that women are still being arrested at the Kotel for acts of Jewish prayer. This must change in order to truly make way for women’s freedoms at the Kotel- in the women’s section.”

Just last week, WOW’s well-attended prayer service was marred again by the arrest of five more women charged with disturbing the peace, and who were taken to court by Jerusalem police. Judge Sharon Larry-Bavli reviewed the video footage of the events that morning, and in an unprecedented move, dismissed all charges against them. “It was not Women of the Wall who initiated the provocation,” she stated. The Jerusalem police have since filed an appeal, now set for April 24, 2013.

WOW’s struggle at the Kotel is also symbolic of a larger struggle for women’s rights in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox powers have become emboldened over the years, and some women have been forced to sit in the back of public buses and walk on segregated sidewalks. They’ve had their children attacked for not dressing “modestly,” their voices silenced at some public events and meetings, and have found their images defaced on public advertisements.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, emphasized yesterday that it’s impossible for the interim situation to be kept separate from the long-term solution. That women are detained and arrested is not acceptable. He declared that the compromise will not be able to move forward as long as the government is not investigating its own behavior towards women.

Women of the Wall is urging people to keep the pressure on at this crucial moment, when so much is at stake for women’s rights.

San Francisco Friends of Women of the Wall will be holding a sing-in in front of the Israeli consulate on THURSDAY MAY 9 AT 11 AM.

Manhattan supporters will be holding “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance!” on Friday morning May 10, exact time and place TBA.

Women of the Wall Chicagoland will hold a service at the Daley Center on Friday morning May 10, 8-10 AM.

Check for further actions and reports at Women of the Wall’s website and Women of the Wall’s facebook page.

Be sure to watch Freedom for Women of the Wall video on YouTube.

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