In Jerusalem, Clash Between 21st Century Women and Orthodox Jews Takes Center Stage

Jerusalem is a city blessed but also cursed by its own holiness. No more so than here at 'Ground Zero', the religious epicentre within the walled Old City, beneath the most disputed holy site -- the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary as known to Muslims, Har Habayit or the Temple Mount for Jews.



The Western Wall is the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple, Judaism's holiest site. Since Israel took control of the Old City in the 1967 Arab-Israel War, the Wall has been a symbol of national unity. 


More recently it has exposed rifts among Israeli Jews. And, threatened dissent between Israel and liberal Jewish groups in the U.S. 


An unseemly episode in this rift took place at the Wall last month. The fracas involved Israeli police, Orthodox Israelis and a group of Jewish women from Israel and the U.S. who are trying to assert their claim to a place in Judaism's religious practices. In Orthodox Judaism, women are denied this. 


The fighting broke out when the 'Women of the Wall' tried to pray at the Wall with a Torah scroll, a parchment copy of the Books of the Bible, Judaism's founding text. 


The Torah took quite a battering and Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the women's prayer group, was detained. As she was unceremoniously bundled into a police van, she shouted, "We're doing nothing wrong. We're fully within the guidelines of the Supreme Court ruling. There's absolutely no reason for me to be arrested." 


Under pressure from Orthodox rabbis, in 2003, Israel's Supreme Court prohibited women from reading from the Torah within the Western Wall plaza. 


However, in a bid to end the regular protests mounted by the Women of the Wall, the Court ruled they could conduct their own prayer services, including with a Torah scroll, at a more remote segment of the Wall. The area known as Robinson's Arch is out of sight of the Orthodox worshippers. 


Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi responsible for the Wall, says the women are waging a "fanatical" political struggle. "People of all faiths and all degrees of Jewish observance are welcome here. But they're expected to respect the feelings of those who pray here all the time, and to behave accordingly." 


Hoffman retorts that her group was not being offensive: "We were simply singing and praying, holding the Torah on our way to Robinson's Arch to complete our service." 


It's not the first time Hoffman and members of her group have been arrested for trying to pray at the Wall. In January, Hoffman was questioned, fingerprinted and threatened with a charge of having committed a felony. 


According to the Orthodox practices, women can pray at the Wall but only within a small section adjacent to the much larger space allocated men. 


'No women allowed here', reads the sign at the entrance to the men's section. Women can hear the prayer service, but not assist the men; a head-level barrier separates them. 


This battle between Orthodox rabbis and the Women of the Wall is a gender war among Jews. Know your place, say the Orthodox to the women who are challenging the rabbis' domination of religious space. 


It is an added complication on this battleground of a potential war of religion between Judaism and Islam: In addition to sister religions fighting for rights and supremacy, now sisters are pitted against brothers of the same religion, brothers against sisters. 


"Today they say women cannot hold the Torah," says Hoffman, "Tomorrow it will be, women cannot look at the Torah. Then it will be, women cannot be at the Wall at all. Before you know it, all Jerusalem will be segregated. That's where we're headed." 


Rabbi Rabinowitz counters: "This is a place of unity, not of discord and polarisation. Let us not forget that two thousand years ago our Holy Temple was destroyed because of internal hatred and strife." 


Communities aren't always kind to their own members. Some are allowed in, others pushed out. Sometimes, they even try to turn dissenters into 'the other'. 


Says Hoffman: "At a time when our enemies are working to de-legitimise the Jewish state, the message of the Israeli establishment is to de-legitimise the liberal streams within Judaism." 


The battle of the women at the Wall reflects the way Orthodox Jews are rebuffing the challenge mounted by reformist Jewish groups. 


The liberal forms of Jewish practice advocated by Hoffman, a leader of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel, and by the Conservative Judaism Movement (with which most U.S. Jews are affiliated), have never taken root in Israel. 


Rituals are entrusted to the Orthodox, even though most Israeli Jews lead almost completely secular lives and seek out rabbis only at important rites of passage -- birth, adulthood, marriage and divorce, death. 


This battle comes at a delicate time in relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. 


Large segments of U.S. Jewry mobilised against a conversion bill in the Knesset that would anchor in law the control by Orthodox rabbis over all conversions to Judaism in Israel. 


At the last minute, this latest fissure in a growing discord between Jews in the U.S. and Israel was averted -- at least, delayed; both sides agreed to a six- month "reassessment". 


The crisis was defused only after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that the conversion bill "could tear apart the Jewish people," intervened. 


He charged Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency (the institution that bridges Jews abroad and Israel) with working out a compromise. "When Israel's legitimacy is increasingly under attack, Jews must unite," said Sharansky, a customary refrain when Israel feels in trouble. 


But Netanyahu recognises that the "trouble" goes beyond the religious rifts within Judaism. His real challenge, he knows, is how to handle the growing discomfort many Jews in the U.S. have with the broad swathe of his government's policies -- at a time when he might need their support more than ever.

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