Is the answer a woman?

The Western Wall is a symbol for Judaism around the world. It is hailed as a spiritual place of pilgrimage, promise, exile and archeology. It has recently become a contested site and a place of hostility and animosity. The Wall has most recently become a place of injustice, segregation and inequality, but a group of women are trying to change that.

Genesis 17:7 says “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” This passage suggests to many Jews the power and strength of the Jews as the Chosen People of God. It is perhaps through this verse that we can understand the symbolism of the Wall for Jews: throughout time Jerusalem was completely destroyed more than twice but the Wall itself remained. This verse and the Wall represent  the tenacity of the Jewish People. The Wall  has become a symbol of Jewish continuity in the Holy Land.

Women of the Wall–an organisation striving for religious equality for women–holds services at the commencement of every month and other Jewish holidays at the Wall.  Each attempt to pray in peace there presents a new struggle. Sometimes it is the need to smuggle a Torah scroll through security, sometimes it is squealing 13 year old girls, loudspeakers trying to drown out the cantor, or Orthodox men spitting and shoving us. I’ve attended four Women of the Wall services in the four months that I’ve been living in Jerusalem, and each has given me a new outlook on the way that this issue is approached by the wider Jewish community (accepting or not) but also by the women themselves. It’s hard to watch other women fight against you, when they should be the ones supporting and being allies. I’ve found it difficult to be a woman in this city. I was once walking down the street and a group of Orthodox men invited my male friends to try it on tefillin, but once they realised that I was already holding a tallit, the offer was revoked. The first Rosh Chodesh Women of the Wall service I attended was one of the most intense and formative experiences I’ve ever had, which I wrote about in another article (Why do you care how I pray?).

I attended Rosh Chodesh again this morning, and once again, found the experience moving, troubling and  empowering. This morning, we were not herded into metal barriers nor prevented from bringing Tallitot or Torot into the area in front of Kotel, but this time we faced another issue. Young girls of about 13 or 14 and a couple of older women spent the entire hour and a half squealing at the top of their lungs and blowing whistles, preventing us from praying. When women in the service began taking photos of the young girls who were squealing, they covered their faces and began yelling. They left the area and returned with scarves which they kept over their heads in order to be able to continue disrupting our service without having identifying photos taken of them. They were then surrounded by security who remained there for the rest of the service. At the end of the service I went to take a photo of them, they yelled at me in Hebrew asking me what I thought I was doing, and calling me derogatory names. Again, I was ashamed of people in my own religion.

A week ago, I attended a conference run by the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem, which focused on leadership and innovation. During the conference I went on a bus tour of a town halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. While the struggles of the Orthodox and Secular are particularly evident at places like the Kotel, this town is a sad reminder of the injustices that religion can enact. The town, called Beit Shemesh, is almost purely governed by the Ultra-Orthodox community, with gender segregated sidewalks and signs above footpaths demanding that women dress ‘modestly’ or stay off the streets. There are women’s health clinics where even the word “woman” is graffitied with black spray paint and until recently most buses were gender segregated. Female doctors and lawyers have their names and photos erased and sometimes replaced in advertisements with men’s faces, even though a woman is only permitted to be treated by another woman. As there is no ‘Israeli’ law imposed on the town, the Rabbis control it. This often leads to anarchy, in the form of violence towards IDF soldiers, women, police and children. Our Modern Orthodox tour guide told a story of her daughter’s school being surrounded for days by (mainly) Haredi boys who threw rocks, spat on them and called them whores and sluts. Her daughter was 7 years old. Modern Orthodox parents teamed up to stand outside the school throughout the day to protect their children. At one point, the police were called, not to protect the young girls, but to protect the Haredim.

Our guide also told us a story of a terrible case of domestic abuse in an Orthodox home, to which the police were called and actually responded. The police tried to arrest the man, but were overthrown by Haredim who overturned the police car, threw rocks and spat at them. Being on this tour was a tough experience, I saw gender inequality at its most brazen. I felt as if everything I’ve been doing as a Progressive Jew, a feminist and a young person was completely outweighed by the injustices in this town. All my efforts to bring equality to my own religion feel impotent when  I see how these people live. In a session at this conference called ‘Rebels by Choice’ Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs, of Women of the Wall, spoke of the real struggles of women in Israel today and their own conflicts with religious authorities and police as they work to attain religious equality and access to the Wall. Jewish practice has evolved since its beginnings. How can we evolve if we are constantly moving backwards in terms of gender equality and freedom of expression? Sometimes I feel like my activism is compromised as a woman. At other times I feel that being woman provides me with the motivation for change. Maybe the answer is a woman. 

 

Mathilda Wise

Mathilda Wise is in Israel on a gap year with Progressive youth movement, Netzer.