WoW - Women at the Wall

by AFP/Patrick Moser, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Israel / Jerusalem

JERUSALEM - Once a month a group of Jewish women risk arrest and brave a crowd of angry ultra-Orthodox men calling them Nazis, to pray at the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism.

In this Holy City, where the focus of differing opinions is more often on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these religious Jews say they face discrimination just because of their gender.

Their adversaries, including the rabbi of the Wall, say the women have no business wearing such religious garments as yarmulkes and prayer shawls, or carrying the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

Such things, the ultra-Orthodox Jews say, are reserved for men.

Worse yet, the women have also come under fire for singing, with some rabbis complaining this could provoke feelings of lust among the men praying on the other side of the partition.

On a recent Friday, about 200 members of the Women at the Wall (WoW) showed up to pray at the main Jewish pilgrimage site despite pouring rain and insults hurled from across the partition that separates the men's section from the far smaller one reserved for women.

Men sporting the black coats and wheel-shaped fur hats that identify ultra-Orthodox Jews yelled out at the women, calling them "Nazis," and telling them to "go to church".

The scene is similar just about every first day of the month on the Jewish lunar calendar. It is then that women pray at the Wall -- also known as the Wailing Wall or by its Hebrew name Kotel. The wall is revered by Jews as the remnant of their Second Temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD.

In November, WoW member Nofrat Frankel, a Conservative Jew, was briefly detained by police for wearing a talit -- prayer shawl -- and carrying a Torah.

The offense can carry a maximum sentence of six months jail and a fine of about 3,000 dollars.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich called the women's behaviour "an unbearable provocation".

WoW leader Anat Hoffman, meanwhile, insists the Jewish holy books do not support the kind of discrimination she says women are subjected to.

"There is nothing in Judaism about this. This is fundamentalism; it is a desecration of this place," she told AFP at a recent Hanukah candle-lighting ceremony the women and their supporters staged in the Kotel square, behind the segregated praying areas.

In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Women of the Wall could not hold vocal prayers at the Wall as this presented a threat to law and order.

Hoffman said the police commander for the Wall recently told her the women could be arrested for wearing fringed black and white prayer shawls like those used by the men. "He did say something flowery would be okay," said Hoffman.

She wore a paper crown with the inscription: "The Kotel is for all," and smiled as she joined the crowd in singing traditional Hanukah songs. The women's voices startled an elderly ultra-Orthodox man who promptly scurried away.

The ultra-Orthodox call themselves Haredi, Hebrew for "those who fear God". Over the years, they have gained control of the Kotel, imposing their ways with little regard for other strains of Judaism, says Hoffman.

"The Western Wall is now seen as the disco of the ultra-Orthodox," she said, pointing to the prayer section where most of the faithful were clad in the black outfits that identify Haredi men and where a loudspeaker blared religious songs -- sung by men.

Rabinovich insists he does his best to accommodate all the visitors to the wall. "But the type of prayers of this group is not part of the Jewish traditions," he told AFP.

"I wonder what this type of prayer will achieve when they hurt the feelings of other people who are praying."

Peretz Rodman, a more moderate rabbi, compared the recent detention of Frankel to religious persecution in the former Soviet Union.

"An Orthodox rabbinic colleague commented to me on the day of the arrest: 'That's what it was like 40 years ago in Moscow: wearing a talit and carrying a Torah in public could get you arrested," Rodman wrote in a YNet News opinion column.

"But that was the Soviet Union, a repressive totalitarian state; this is Israel in the 21st century'," said Rodman, a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

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