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Prisoners of Conscience: Jewish Women in the Holy Land

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Any day now, bells may ring out in Jerusalem. Possibly Natan Sharansky himself will announce that the Israeli government has agreed to the plan he proposed for a newly conceived pluralist prayer space in Jerusalem's Old City, as have the Reform and Conservative movements. Signing on as well will be individuals within Women of the Wall who believe that going along with the plan is, from the point of view of what they call a "flexible pragmatism," well advised.

The Israeli government will be so very relieved. The headache of Jewish women in their prayer shawls being arrested, their images repeated in the Diaspora press, creating a PR nightmare: imagine -- it will be no more.

At this juncture, I recall how Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for an investigation when Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Kotel in October 2012 and was humiliated by her treatment and imprisonment. I was so impressed that he declared that the police must "ensure that the right of women to pray at the Wall is protected."

I also remember the words of Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. He was not silent either. "There is no denominational monopoly on the spirituality" of the Western Wall," he said, and "it is intolerable that any woman should be arrested for praying at one of Judaism's most cherished sites." It is intolerable that ultra-Orthodox modes of prayer should trump those of other Jews, particularly when the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled years ago that from the perspective of Jewish law, the prayer practices of women who pray aloud in groups, wearing ritual garb and reading from a Torah scroll, are fully acceptable.

I was moved that both of these rabbis used the weight of their positions to champion the right of Jewish women to pray in groups, wearing their tallitot at the Kotel. I am sure the photographs of a Jewish woman being arrested for being a worshipping Jewish woman were distressing to them.

The rest of us Women of the Wall, however -- that is, those of us who are not "flexible pragmatists" -- remain inflexibly bound to our 25-year-old vision of women's group prayer at the Kotel. It is the very vision that got Hoffman and so many of our sisters arrested, time and again. Soon we may be waving goodbye to the Reform and Liberal movements and those members of Women of the Wall who will accompany them to their refurbished prayer space at the Robinson's Arch Archeological Site. We will wish them well.

But we will remain at the Kotel in the women's section, a place that is particularly important to Orthodox sisters, such as Rivka Haut, the founding visionary of our practice. At that point, the government will surely put an end to its moratorium on having women arrested for worshipping at the Kotel. Perhaps Sharansky, who had promised that there would be no arrests as the plan was being negotiated will be the very one to pick up his phone and say, "The moratorium against arrests is over." This is a very weird thought, considering that Sharansky was the one behind bars for so very long, the one whose release, along with his fellow Jews, so many of us championed.

The government will permit harassment once again at the hands of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox agency that controls the Kotel. (Did you notice how quiet they have managed to be these last months, how accommodating? Who doesn't presume they were told: "Just hang in a bit longer, and the Kotel will be all yours!"). And how this makes our case, as we've said all along: that all this "uncontrollable" violence, this "natural" and "inevitable" upwelling of sheer outrage at the sight of women acting -- like Jews -- was manufactured and manipulated -- and -- obviously -- quite controllable.

I am not an employee of the Reform movement, as is Anat Hoffman. None of the other women who will be praying with me at the Kotel, to the best of my knowledge, is either. If we are to be arrested, as Hoffman was, will Rabbis Jacobs and Saperstein come to our aid, protecting our rights, declaring that our arrest too is intolerable? Will they be joined by leaders of the Conservative movements and by the Women of the Robinson's Arch Archeological Site?

I would like to hear their promise of support, now, rather than hear reports of their moral outrage later. Quite specifically: I would like those who are signing the plan to insist that their participation in an aspect of it is contingent upon official decriminalization women's group prayer at the Kotel being. No arrests for prayer that is upheld by the Israeli Supreme court since 2003. No fines. No imprisonment. No harassment by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

Those sitting down at the negotiating table clearly have no problem being heard. Just recently they had success in rallying to protest the government's plan to give control of the new prayer plaza over to the Elad-City of David Foundation. That matter was not negotiable; if it was not handled, the deal was off. The Government responded: Elad would not control the plaza -- the Government would.

I hope that the very same leaders will be as adamant in insisting that "the right of women to pray at the Wall" is non-negotiable as well. I would not be alone in finding their gesture as moving now as I did in 2012.