Event Review

Feature - 29 November 2000

Women of the Wall
on being heard and not being silenced..


A group of women have been fighting for the right to pray publicly and wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall in the face of hostile, sometimes violent, opposition. In May 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Women of the Wall were entitled to pray publicly, read out loud from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.

They gained a victory but not an assured one, since the court gave the Government 6 months to decide on final arrangements and the women agreed not to pray in prayer shawls or read aloud from the Torah at the Wall but to do so nearby during this time. In addition, the police were given permission to intervene if the group's prayer posed a "threat to public safety". Furthermore, both Shas and the United Torah Judaism party introduced bills which would impose a jail sentence on women who pray and wear prayer shawls at the Wall (see Vicky's report for more detail) The second hearing was set for November 19th.

Anat Hoffman comes from a secular kibbutz background and she initially supported the Women at the Wall from a civil liberties standpoint. Since joining the group she has become religious: an observant Reform Jew, keeping the Sabbath and dietary laws. (The prayer group is inter-denominational but holds an Orthodox service) At the same time she remains an activist for the secular Meretz party and senses a lack of understanding from both ultra-orthodox and ultra secular quarters for the cause of Women at the Wall.

Update By Vicky Grosser, JWN chair

I was recently in Jerusalem, where I met with Peggy Sidor and Anat Hoffman, founder members of Women of the Wall, to hear the latest developments. They were keen to give me a clear picture of the situation as they approached the second Supreme Court hearing on 19th November.

"We have been silenced in prayer at the holiest place of Judaism, because men have decided that we are best praying when our lips make no sound", said Anat. "When women are silenced in this way by the violence we have experienced at the Wall, by the Courts, by the police, then it affects us all, even when we don't think it is our issue."

Court rules: "the women have waited long enough"

So, what is the history to this extraordinary campaign? After many years of taking a stand, the WOTW finally went to the Supreme Court on 22nd May this year. The group was so sure that the three Judges would not find in their favour that they had already written a draft press release to this effect. But to their delight, the Judges did find in their favour, stating that "the women have waited long enough"

The backlash

The celebrations had hardly begun when an extraordinary series of backlash events took place. Just 2 days after the Court decision, the Shas party introduced a law into the Knesset which effectively stated that women would be committing a criminal act by praying at the wall punishable, by up to 6 months imprisonment. The law was passed. Only a week later, the United Torah Party's even more draconian law, carrying a maximum sentence of 7 years, was similarly passed. Such was the uproar at the success of this group of women that, Anat told me, the Knesset legal advisor proposed that the government ask the Supreme Court to reconsider the decision. This would take place on 19th November before 9 judges.

Anat and Peggy are clearly reeling at the acceptance of this request. They can only concluded that they have threatened the male establishment far more than they had anticipated "They are clearly afraid that we women will win" said Peggy. The Women of the Wall demands seems to have become symbolic of women making demands on every level of our lives. "Some secular men who had supported us when we began our actions, and were clear that this is a matter of women's liberation have now changed their minds", added Anat. "They tell us, you want too much". This sound very much like what the Rabbis say when they state that their wife or daughter doesn't want to pray at the Wall".

I was struck by the determination of the WOTW and by their international support at a time when they could be feeling much isolation. As a Diaspora Jewish woman I asked myself, "what does this mean to me?" I concluded that I would like the opportunity to pray at the Wall when I am next in Jerusalem. I deserve this right to participate in Judaism in this way, if I choose. And, if I don't, what do I risk for my own choices in the future if I stay quiet at this time?

A friend asked me recently, why do you think this has any relevance to secular Jewish women? My response is that if we stay quiet, are silenced in one area of our liberation, how much harder will it be for us to achieve our demands in another.

We do not yet have the result of the November 19 hearing. However, Peggy and Anat were very clear about their need for financial support for the court costs, whatever the outcome. If you would like to support the Women of the Wall appeal for their court costs, which they estimate at $15,000, please send cheques to: bank account no 009632433 at : Israel Discount Bank, main branch, Ben Yehuda Street 11, Jerusalem, Israel.

"Thank you so much for your efforts, It's really heart warming to know that people, women, think of us and do their best to help and support us" Peggy Sidor"

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