End in sight for row over Western Wall women?

Women of the Wall (11/04/13) The women say restrictions on what they can do at the Wall are discriminatory

One of Judaism's holiest sites, the Western Wall, has become the recurrent scene of a public dispute between a liberal Jewish women's group and Orthodox Jewry over religious rights. Now, after months of tension, efforts are being made to find a compromise solution to try to bridge a seemingly intractable divide.

In the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif has been revered for centuries by both religions. Its status is one of the most sensitive in the region, and stands at the very core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At its base is the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient structure that surrounded the Biblical Jewish Temple and a unifying symbol for the Jewish people worldwide.

Start Quote

This is supposed to be holy ground, not a battleground”

End Quote Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz Chief Rabbi of Western Wall

But in recent months, it has become the focus of an intense struggle between the more traditional and modern streams of Judaism, as a group of women fight for the right to "free prayer" at the holy site.

"This is part of the broader fight for gender equality and religious freedom in Israel," says Lesley Sachs, director of the Women of the Wall organisation.

The group's aim is to secure the rights of women to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah (Bible) collectively and aloud at the Western Wall.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, women should not perform these religious rituals.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, explains that it is governed by decades-old Jewish custom, and he must prevent all attempts to make the sacred site more liberal or more radical.

"This should be a place that unifies everyone, that focuses everyone," he says. "And for that to happen everyone has to compromise. If no-one is willing to compromise that is a recipe for disaster. This is supposed to be holy ground, not a battleground."

'Battle of the Kotel'

These clashes are a symbol of the greater tensions in Israeli society between the ultra-Orthodox, who abide by a very strict interpretation of Jewish law, and more modern Jewry.

The issue dominated the last Israeli elections as most ultra-Orthodox men learn in seminary and receive state stipends instead of performing army service, and demand businesses be closed on the Sabbath and bus lines segregated.

Orthodox woman holding umbrella with slogans directed against Women of the Wall Orthodox women have also shown disapproval of the Women of the Wall

"We want to see a day when a woman can have her batmitzvah here, wear tefillin (phylacteries), a tallit (prayer shawl), and read the Torah with her family without the threat of arrest," explains Shira Pruce, the group's spokeswoman.

As the sun rises over the Wall, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, the women are beginning their monthly prayer service.

Some have already donned colourful prayer shawls, a few others are wearing elaborately designed skullcaps and some have also put on tefillin - small black boxes containing Biblical verses that are bound to the head and arm.

The women sing in harmony with the cantor, at times placing their arms around each other and swaying with the melodies.

The group were joined this morning by two Knesset (parliament) members from the Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg and Michal Rozin.

A self-proclaimed secular Jew, Ms Zandberg said she will be a regular presence at the monthly prayer service out of solidarity.

"This is the battle of the Kotel," she explains. "The ultra-Orthodox have made it a territorial battle. Who does the Kotel belong to? It's not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It belongs to the whole nation of Israel and the majority of the people of Israel are not ultra-Orthodox."

Woman detained at Western Wall (11/03/13) Women risk detention or arrest for breaching the High Court ruling over the Wall

By the end of the prayer service, five women had been arrested by police. One other woman was removed from the scene for unfurling an umbrella riddled with protest slogans. One man was arrested for burning one of their prayer books.

Police are enforcing a 2003 Supreme Court ruling stating that women cannot wear prayer shawls, chant from the Torah or say prayers such as the mourner's Kaddish aloud in a quorum of 10 or more at the Western Wall.

'One nation, one Wall'

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There is enough room for everyone to pray without bothering the other”

End Quote Natan Sharansky Jewish Agency chairman

Following a global Jewish outcry over the arrests of women there a few months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky to find a compromise that would allow the Western Wall to accommodate the different streams of Judaism.

Mr Sharansky just returned from a trip to the United States, where he met American Jewish leaders and devised a plan to establish a new prayer section at the Western Wall to accommodate egalitarian prayer.

The proposal is subject to government approval and has not yet been accepted by the Women of the Wall.

"We have one nation, one state, and there is also one Western Wall," said Mr Sharansky after meeting Rabbi Rabinowitz. "It's important that every Jew in the world can express his identification with the nation, with the state, with his beliefs, in his own way."

"You have to look at the entire Western Wall as one place for prayer, and in this large place, with all its history and significance, there is enough room for everyone to pray without bothering the other."

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