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Posted in: Judaism, Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law, Israel

Published on Jun 06, 2013 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Times of Israel

Twenty Five Years and Counting No More: Women's Struggle for Religious Rights in Jerusalem

On June 9, 2013, this coming Sunday, the legendary, Jerusalem-based Women of the Wall plan to conduct a full Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) prayer service in the women's section at the Kotel (Western Wall). They plan to leyn (chant) from a Torah. This will be the second time we will have been able to do so "legally" and with police protection since 1989. Before then, the Israeli police allowed violence against praying Jewish women to prevail and, if forced to act, arrested WOW leaders and supporters.

Haredim (fundamentalists) are again threatening violent and soul-shattering "prayer protests" against WOW. They are cautioning their young men to refrain from committing physical violence but sustained shouting and cursing are also violent and disruptive.

No one, including a Jew, should be forced to run a gauntlet of hostility in order to be able to pray. Were this to be happening in any other country, were our antagonists non-Jews, it would be called rabid anti-Semitism, pure and simple.

I am one of the founding "mothers" of Women of the Wall (WOW) and together with Rivka Haut, have co-edited and just updated the only anthology about this historic struggle: Women of the Wall. Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site. We are both name-plaintiffs in the original lawsuit brought in 1989, by Jerusalem WOW and by WOW's North American supporters.

Over the years, WOW worshippers have been defamed, physically and verbally attacked, arrested, jailed, and death-threatened. They have also been blamed for "provoking" the violence. WOW is constantly asked: "Why not pray elsewhere? Why not accept Robinson's Arch? Why does it have to be the Kotel?"

Why didn't the Jews accept Uganda as their national homeland? Why did Jews insist on returning to the Jewish homeland when they knew that the surrounding Arab states had vowed to never accept a Jewish state in their midst– and when so many Arab and other Diaspora Jews viewed the Jewish state as potentially endangering their own positions?

Why did African-Americans insist on being served at "white-only" lunch counters in the Jim Crow American South? Surely, they could have avoided the beatings, arrests, and even murders. Weren't they "provoking" the racists by coming where they were not wanted, where it was not "customary" for African-Americans to have lunch?

I am troubled by the concerted campaign against WOW that has recently been launched in the haredi and Orthodox world.

Non-factual articles have suddenly appeared in the Orthodox world, hard on the heels of our April 24th legal victory in the Jerusalem District Court and immediately following an ugly and dangerous riot that haredi men and boys launched against WOW last month at the Kotel.

A new group, Women for the Wall has recently been organized. I am glad that their opposition to WOW has allowed them a public role in religious affairs but I disagree with many of their points.

As the author of the 2002 classic, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, I know full well that, like men, women also internalize sexist beliefs and are especially empowered to keep other women in line and/or to compete with other women in a way we do not compete with men. Thus, I am not surprised, only saddened, by how hard it is for so many women to accept and respect women who are "different" from themselves without scapegoating that "difference."

Last month, haredi rabbis sent thousands of high school girls to fill up the all-female space before WOW arrived. In the past, haredi women, on their own initiative, have wrestled for possession of WOW's Torah–a dangerous undertaking since if the Torah falls, all who witness this customarily fast for 40 days. On days when the women's section was not too crowded, haredi women have also gotten into WOW worshipper's personal space and stood there, chanting prayers loudly in an effort to drown out and ruin WOW's prayers.

Women who prefer to pray silently and individually somehow feel threatened, diminished, by women who wish to pray out loud in an all-female group. Ironically, some WOW members often pray alone and silently and have nothing but respect for women who choose to do so. The respect is not reciprocal. Our very vocal opponents have been carefully taught that uniformity and conformity is a woman's glory, and that diversity—even within an all-female group– is a form of heathenism.

Twenty five long years have passed. Women of the Wall continued to pray every month and on many holidays at the Kotel. Despite every obstacle: economic, legal, criminal, and physical, they persisted and they did so with bravery and determination. Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews have come to admire and support them. To its credit, the Jewish state of Israel is now committed to upholding the law which grants Jewish women these civil and religious rights. I believe that, at long last, we may be facing victory.

May we handle it with grace and gratitude.

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