OTI Online
Fall 1997

Wailing at the Wall
by Phyllis Chesler


According to those who slander them, women cannot be counted as Jews in a prayer quorum. Women are separate and unequal. Simultaneously, women are routinely idealized as superior, as long as they confine themselves to their proper, subordinate places -- away from the Kotel.


Members of the ICWOW reading from the Torah at the dedication of a Torah to the women of Jerusalem from the women in the diaspora, in 1989. Although the woman are observant of Orthodox customs, the sight of women reading from the Torah incites ultra-Orthodox men to violence.

Photo: Joan Roth.

In 1989, for a period of nearly eight months, a group of Jewish women peacefully praying at the Kotel (or Western Wall) in Israel were verbally and physically attacked by ultra-Orthodox extremist men. The police and the border patrol refused to intervene, except once when they used tear gas to disperse both the rioters and the women at prayer.

Women of the Wall (WOW) and the International Committee for Women of the Wall (ICWOW) sued the state and the Ministry of Religion in the Israeli Supreme Court for their religious and civil rights. They asked that the Israeli police maintain law and order in public places -- just as they do at holy sites shared by Muslims and Jews elsewhere, as well as in disputes among different denominations of Jewry. The Court prohibited the women from praying in their fashion until the matter was resolved, either judicially or politically. If WOW disobeyed this order, they were informed they would be fined and arrested. The case has been to the Supreme Court three times and has been the subject of a "six-month" government-commissioned study -- a study that has now lasted for over three years.

Although WOW's mode of prayer was in strict accordance with an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law (halacha), the women -- who prayed only with each other in the women's section -- were still called "whores," "witches," "unnatural," and "tainted by women's lib," both on the ground and in the press. According to those who slander them, women cannot be counted as Jews in a prayer quorum. Women are separate and unequal. Simultaneously, women are routinely idealized as superior, as long as they confine themselves to their proper, subordinate places -- away from the Kotel. Israel has increasingly been plagued by fundamentalist terrorism -- both Jewish and Muslim. Following the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious Israeli Jew, his successor Benjamin Netenyahu's government has increasingly yielded to right-wing influence. As a result, bills are currently pending in the Israeli Parliament to turn the Kotel, which since it was liberated in 1967 has been a national shrine, into an ultra-Orthodox religious site. Lawsuits are pending in the High Court to strengthen the Orthodox stranglehold over conversions. Recently, the state-run bus service consented to a religious neighborhood's demand that women be forced to sit separately from men at the back of the bus.

On June 10 and 11, 1997, during the sacred days of Shavuot, a group of Israeli Conservative and Reform Jews gathered to pray at the Kotel. They did not know that on June 2, the government had secretly enacted "Decision #14," based on an also-secret report by the Israeli police. In the report, the police claimed they could not protect the petitioners (WOW) at the Kotel. As a result, the government declared in Decision #14 that the petitioner's prayer at the Kotel would "constitute a danger to public order."

The following are some eyewitness accounts of what happened to the group of Jews, both men and women, who came to the Kotel to pray.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks

"On Shavuot in Jerusalem, tens of thousands gather at the Kotel, at sunrise, to pray. There are literally a hundred, or more, minyanim [prayer quorums] from which one may choose. Some one hundred Jews, mostly Conservative, gathered at the Kotel Plaza for an egalitarian minyan. This is not the norm at the Kotel, so in an effort to minimize the sense of provocation, we gathered way off to the side and in the rear of the Kotel Plaza . . . By the start of the Torah reading, several hundred Haredim had abandoned their own prayers to come and push, shove, and taunt. To their credit the police and the border patrol were quick to react. They did everything in their power to keep the now-growing and very angry mob at bay. As we made it through the reading of the Ten Commandments, the police were close to losing control. They beseeched us to leave, for they were no longer able to protect us. We were now surrounded by close to a thousand young men pushing, spitting, calling us Nazis and throwing stones . . . water and fecal matter were being tossed upon us and upon the Torah scroll. I, and not a few others, were hit. My tallith was stained. I went immediately to the police where I filed a criminal complaint for the attack. We finished our prayers in a secluded garden. As tears streamed down the cheeks of many, we concluded our prayers with Hatikvah [the Israeli national anthem]."

Haviva Ner-David

"My complacency was shattered . . . It was when they saw women reading from the Torah that they really went wild. Women reading Torah with or without men is desecrating the Torah in their eyes . . . Hundreds of young men in black had surrounded us and were yelling . . . they began to push and shove and kick and spit and I immediately asked some people around me to help me shield my baby, who was sitting in his stroller. The police's solution was to ask us to leave . . . I had experienced this same hatred before as a member of another group, the Women of the Wall . . ."

David Fine

"The crowd of hundreds had now become thousands, with crowds of people from the roofs of the Jewish Quarter homes cheering them on and pointing out where we were: 'Because of you six million Jews died'; 'Go back to Germany!' Some of our prayer shawls were being torn off our backs and stomped on . . . The mob was accusing the police of being Nazis for defending us.

"After they started to push past the police I saw two officers start charging towards the crowd. But their commander called them back. They didn't have tear gas or shields or clubs. The government never sent reinforcements for our protection. The Wall belongs to those who exiled us."

Jacob Ner-David

"In 1989, I protested the presence of a Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz and suffered physical abuse at the hands of local Poles. Until yesterday, I thought I would never again feel hatred comparable to what we felt in Poland as Jews. Yesterday was much worse. The hatred etched into the faces and voices of the Haredim attacking yesterday surpassed the worst anti-Semitism I ever experienced . . . Over the course of an hour, we experienced a pogrom committed by Jews against Jews. Haredi faces contorted in hatred -- toward us, the police, the soldiers, anyone not exactly like them."

Debby Weisman and Elliot Cohen

"We are observant Jews of the Orthodox movement who vigorously condemn the shameful incident that occurred on the morning of Shavuot at the Kotel. A group of Jews who call themselves Haredim -- pious and God-fearing -- attacked Conservative worshipers with cruelty and vulgarity. We see in their violent act a desecration of God's name. Even if we have a disagreement with the Conservative movement, we must conduct it peacefully and with respect for other human beings."


Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a director of the board of ICWOW. Tax-exempt donations to this ongoing struggle can be mailed to Rabbi Helene Ferris, 215 Hessian Hills Rd., Croton, NY 10520. Make checks payable to ICWOW.


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