Women of the Wall Prevail -- Sightings (Sara Hirschhorn)

For Americans the state of Israel is something of an enigma. We often hear that it is our most important democratic ally in the Middle East. Sometimes we even speak of it in terms that equate Israeli democracy and practice with American processes. One of the questions that I've long wrestled with concerns whether a nation can be a true democracy and be a religiously defined state. That is, even if you provide for a modicum of religious freedom, it would seem that if religion or ethnicity defines the nature of a state, someone or some group will end up being a second class citizen. Such is the case in Israel. Ironically, even Jews face discrimination in Israel, because religious affairs have been placed in the hands of the ultra-orthodox (even though a majority of Israelis are secularists). So, in this article by Sarah Hirschhorn we see how that divide affects women who desire to pray at the Western Wall, and have been prevented by religious officials, even though women had this right prior to the founding of the state of Israel. (see picture)   Take a read, offer your thoughts.


Women of the Wall Prevail
by Sara Hirschhorn
Thursday |  May 9 2013
Nashot Ha-Kotel (Women of the Wall) in Jerusalem, led by the Israeli-firebrand social activist, Anat Hoffman, are back in the headlines this week following a major legal victory. The court ruling marks a turning point in a more than two decades-long struggle between the Israeli government, various religious authorities, and the increasingly prominent activist group. Since its founding in 1988 at the First International Jewish Feminist Conference, this women’s organization — of multiple Jewish denominations and nationalities — has worked to secure in their words, “the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

For years, Nashot Ha-Kotel has experienced incremental victories and (sometimes) violent challenges to its agenda, culminating in a landmark legal decision in late April, 2013, by the Jerusalem District Court, that the group was not in violation of “local custom” — an obscure  loophole exploited by detractors to delegitimize their ritual and prayer at the Wall (Kotel) — thus placing Nashot Ha-Kotel on firmer legal footing for the future.

Though the Court has issued a ruling (which may yet be challenged in higher courts according to breaking news), the activities of Women of the Wall continue to be adjudicated in the public sphere, especially in light of the multiple religious and ethnic interests vested in this issue. While alternately condoned and condemned as radical feminist trailblazers, the activism of Nashot Ha-Kotel can be read as conservative in that its campaign would allow women’s status at the Western Wall to revert to patterns of the pre-state era (and earlier). While perhaps not commonly known, in earlier periods women and men prayed in mixed company and the Wall was a major site of female devotional life, in contrast to the strictures imposed by the (ultra) Orthodox supervisors of the Kotel today.

Pre-state traditions notwithstanding, Women of the Wall has self-consciously sought to mobilize various historical tropes of liberation in the Israeli context, linking feminist notions of freedom with Zionist narrative of the capture of Jerusalem and the Western Wall in the 1967 war.

This bridging of the personal and the political (and embedding their activities within the national-religious framework of Israel) runs over troubled waters, however. Hoffman’s recent keynote address at the Markowicz lecture at Brandeis University (kicking off a one-day conference, "Gendered Rites/Gendered Rights: Sex Segregation, Religious Practice, and Public Life," at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute) illustrated the complexity of balancing gender rights against other competing interests such as rights for the disabled, other denominations of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, class, and race. (Most poignantly and problematically, these competing interests seem to include national security: Hoffman was recently labeled a “strategic threat” to the State of Israel for antagonizing conservative Diaspora donors.) Her nuanced presentation at Brandeis underscored both the tensions and unlikely alliances that have emerged in her unique struggle to achieve gender equality in Israel.

Recent legal gains aside, all is not water under the bridge. A new compromise has taken shape: the creation of an egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, a Second Temple era masterpiece in the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Dubbed the “Sharansky Plan” after Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish activist cum Israeli powerbroker — who knows a thing or two about religious and political repression — the proposal effectively moves the question physically and ideologically out of the realm of ultra-Orthodox control. Though the Women of the Wall expressed tentative support for the proposal, especially since Nashot Ha-Kotel has held services in this area in years past, Hoffman issued a stone-faced rejection following the recent legal victory. The consensus on the measure has subsequently crumbled.

While many question the significance of devoting so much political capital to reaching a compromise with Women of the Wall given the deteriorating dynamics of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, Nashot Ha-Kotel has emerged as a kind of canary in the coal mine for pluralism in the holy land.  While the future of the organization and its goals are part of a history that remains to be written, Nashot Ha-Kotel has helped break down barriers at the Western Wall and beyond.


Women of the Wall. Accessed May 9, 2013. http://womenofthewall.org.il/.

State of Israel v. Ras et al., Jerusalem, Israel. Filed April 24, 2013. Translated by Rina Ne’eman Hebrew Language Services.

Horowitz, Elliott. “The Women’s Wall.” Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life, April 30, 2013.

Reclaim and Liberate the Kotel.” Women of the Wall. Accessed May 9, 2013.

Women in Israel: From the Back of the Bus to the Top of the Agenda, 5th Annual Diane (Dina) Markowicz Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, presented by Anat Hoffman.”HBI Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Accessed May 9, 2013.

Sales, Ben. “Foundations Falter for Sharansky’s Western Wall Plan.” The Times of Israel, May 1, 2013.

Author, Sara Yael Hirschhorn, earned an M.A. in Middle East Studies and a Ph.D. in History (Middle East) from the University of Chicago. She is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University where her research focuses on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the relationship between the U.S./American-Jewry and Israel.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

Email DivSightings@gmail.com 


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