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Posted in: Judaism, Israel, Women of the Wall

Published on Nov 18, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Pajamas Media

The Jewish Taliban in Jerusalem

Jewish Woman Arrested for Praying in a Prayer Shawl

Earlier today, Nofrat Frenkel, a Jewish woman, was arrested in Jerusalem for the crime of trying to pray with a Torah and for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall (the "Kotel"). Frenkel was not alone. She was part of a woman's prayer group (the Women of the Wall) which today consisted of 40 other women, some of whom are American Jews. Frenkel was "pushed into a nearby police station and then transferred to the main police station at Yaffo Gate." But, the 40 women formed a procession and followed the police; they remained at the station, singing" (probably praying and chanting psalms) until the police released Frenkel.

According to one of the visiting Americans, Rabbi Felicia Sol, "It is ridiculous that in a Jewish state that is supposedly democratic, women cannot pray the way they want to and only one definition of Judaism is accepted."

As everyone knows, I am a passionate advocate for the state of Israel and view the country both as a necessary miracle and as the only democracy in the Middle East. I am also a religious Jew; I pray with a modern Orthodox congregation and study Torah with joy. I understand what is religiously forbidden and what is religiously permitted. Although the matter is complex and controversial, please understand that what the Women of the Wall tried to do today is not forbidden by halakha (Jewish religious law). They are praying in a women-only group. They do not count themselves as a minyan (prayer quorum). They omit certain prayers.

They are 100% kosher. Yet, over the years, they have been called and often treated by ultra-Orthodox Jews as if they were "Nazis, pigs, destroyers, witches, satanic, fools, feminists, and enemy politicals."

However, you must also understand: the police were only enforcing the law. Incredibly, the praying women did commit civil disobedience. They probably hoped that no one would notice their quiet and orderly prayer service. For those who want to understand how this law came about, please read my piece, which appeared last year. Also, please read the book that Rivka Haut and I co-edited: Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site.

Always, from the start, other women, more traditional women, sounded the alarm against Women of the Wall (WOW). Haredi (ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic women) have cursed, physically assaulted, drowned out, and tried to steal WOW's Torah in a knock-down-drag-out fight for it. Sometimes, Haredi men are behind them, but often the Haredi women do this spontaneously.

Always, those women who have been denied religious power and freedom find their only power in restricting other women; those women who have internalized sexist values perennially enforce the dress and behavior codes for other women—not only in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but also in Jerusalem, Israel.

And let's not forget: ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem have also been fighting for segregated buses in which women and men sit separately—with women literally sitting at the back of the bus. (Who could make this up? Alas, it's true). A few weeks ago, a special committee appointed by Israel's Transportation Ministry decided that "bus segregation is legal if voluntary." They are going to conduct a year-long trial in which those women who wish to segregate themselves from men may do so.

'Tis true: women do face sexual harassment on public transportation. Women in India prefer women-only railway compartments. But segregated buses in Jerusalem have not been launched as a counter-measure in response to male sexual harassment. It is a clear statement of women's subordinate (not "special") status.

While the mainstream media, leftists, feminists, and human rights groups rage on about the question of justice for Israeli Arabs and for non-Israeli ("Palestinian") Arabs (I myself have done so in the past), few have been concerned with the rights of Israeli women. The elite do not often credit Israel for the relative freedom that Israeli secular women enjoy (compared to women in the Middle East), nor do they note the increasing Taliban-ization of Jerusalem vis-a-vis Jewish religious women.

Jewish women are not allowed to pray with a Torah wearing prayer shawls in the women's section at the Western Wall (the "Kotel"). It took an eighteen year lawsuit to obtain such punitive clarity from the Israeli Supreme Court. And please note: In our last go-round in the Israeli Supreme Court, four judges were in our favor, while four judges opposed us. The fifth and decisive vote was cast by none other than the great, allegedly liberal Chief Judge, Aharon Barak, who could find no justice for Jewish women. Ironically, his reputation resides in the many pro-Palestinian rights cases that he decided favorably.

He could find no justice for Jewish women in Israel. This decision will forever tarnish his otherwise stellar reputation.

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