Following four trips to Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice, the Women of the Wall were barred from wearing men’s prayer garments, singing publicly, or reading the Torah scrolls as men freely do on the other side of the partition. In 2003 the court demanded that they be granted an accommodation at an adjacent section of the same wall, an archaeological site south of the Western Wall Plaza, known as Robinson’s Arch. The site is seen as a reasonable accommodation by many, but the women see it as something akin to "the back of the bus with new upholstery."
Frances Raday, one of the lawyers who has represented the Women of the Wall at the Supreme Court, dismisses the argument that the women are being deliberately provocative in refusing to pray at the proposed alternate site: “Robinson’s Arch is not a site for communal prayer of the Jewish people,” she explained in an email. “The Women of the Wall's mode of prayer is in accordance with Orthodox halachic (legal) provision. The decision that the Women of the Wall should pray at Robinson’s Arch is therefore the exclusion of women, who assert their right to equal religious personhood, from the shared public space of the Western Wall Plaza, which is regarded by Jewish consensus as of central symbolic importance for Jewish religion, history, nationality and culture. It is a form of exclusion and banishment and so is certainly separate but in no way equal.”
Bonna Devora Haberman, who helped found the original group in 1988, puts it in a slightly different way: “Robinson's Arch is a beautiful site; it is not the core of our collective gathering. Precisely at the kotel, the prayers of Women of the Wall must belong and contribute to the seething, passionate narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Until women's voices, lives, bodies, work, and prayers are fully part, we will not be whole. Humanity will not be whole.”
The other innovation of the February prayer service was the presence of a group of former Israeli paratroopers, the same men who helped recapture the Western Wall from Jordan in 1967. One of the most iconic Israeli photographs ever taken features three of these young men gazing up at the wall. Yitzhak Yiftah, one of those soldiers, was at the wall again to support the women. A few Orthodox Jews fling insults at the women, while one asks the paratroopers if they had truly risked their lives for these women, for this? Yes, replies one of the veterans, exactly for this.
This wasn’t really their fight either. Over on the men’s side a man shouts, in Hebrew, “These women are our worst enemies; not the Arabs.”
Yet, as the women pray, they are surrounded, from partitions behind and beside them, by other male supporters. Husbands, rabbis, leaders of the Reform movement. Folks who felt it wasn’t their fight until they realized that perhaps it was. And while the women who dance at the center of the prayer group—in their prayer shawls and some funny hats in anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Purim—are chiefly American or American-born, Israeli women surround them as well, many in religiously modest scarves and skirts, and many more who don’t know the prayers by heart. They aren’t here to fight for their right to wear a prayer shawl. They are here because their sisters had asked them to be.
It looked as though arrests wouldn’t happen this month. Typically the women have been arrested midservice; sometimes midprayer. There are too many paratroopers; too many reporters, and so the police film the women and warn them but mainly leave them alone. It looked like it would be a rare victory, and Anat Hoffman was grinning as she left the plaza. This was to be the first time in 22 months that no one had been arrested on a monthly prayer gathering.
The police had waited until the women began to relocate to Robinson’s Arch to begin the arrests. The paratroopers and much of the press had left. Then the arrests of the 10 women, among them a rabbinical student in her eighth month of pregnancy, could begin. As has also become the custom in the wake of these monthly arrests, the women remaining relocate to the sidewalk opposite the Kishleh police station, in the Old City, to finish reading from the Torah scrolls while their friends are being fingerprinted and photographed inside.
Packed like shawl-wearing sardines on the sidewalk in front of the Christ Church Coffee shop, the cops offered to clear the sidewalks, but the cafe owners declined. The Christ Church Coffee shop became a safer place for women’s prayer than the Western Wall. At this point the remaining women have collected salty snacks, a Torah scroll, a Harley Davidson, and a scowling police presence. They finish their prayers and go home. After several hours those who had been arrested were released as well. Another woman, raised in an Orthodox home, told me she was moved to support the Women of the Wall because she saw this in its simplest terms as a suppression of women’s voices. She had simply grown tired of being told to continue to be silent, to be small.
Considering how many people tell me this isn’t really their fight today, the Women of the Wall have amassed what looks to be a small army of supporters. Which must be the surest route to social change. There are men here who have come to believe that this isn’t just a women’s issue, and Israelis who no longer believe this is just a diaspora issue. There are religious Jews here who are no longer persuaded that this is about liberal Judaism, and secular Jews who don’t see this as solely about religious freedom. This is about religious authority in Israel, and how it’s expressed. This is how change begins.