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Yizhar Hess Headshot

Was the Kotel Liberated?

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In December 1928, the British Mandate government outlawed the blowing of the shofar next to the Western Wall (Kotel) following Arab complaints that it was an offense to the sanctity of Islam. Rabbi Kook, then the chief rabbi of Palestine, reacted immediately. He sent an urgent letter to the British High Commissioner, calling the British edict "an affront to religious freedom and conscience."

Jews never accepted the British edict. Every Yom Kippur, they found a volunteer to sound the shofar. In 1930, at the close of Yom Kippur, Beitar member Moshe Segal, who had concealed a shofar under his tallit, sounded a tekiyah g'dola (a long blast of the shofar) as the fast ended. British police arrested him and dragged him to the Kishleh (the Old City of Jerusalem's main police station, then and now).

A few days ago, and 82 years later, on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, on the renovated grand plaza of the Western Wall -- under Israeli sovereignty since 1967 and freed of the yoke of foreign rule -- police dragged several women into custody for allegedly disturbing the sanctity of the holy site. One of them had led a group of Hadassah women in song and prayer while wrapped in a tallit. Apparently, the authorities thought her chanting of the Shema to be too loud. The Shema prayer is the most central in all of Judaism and its words are ones we are all taught to sing with passion and strength.

Two other women were detained by police the next day for violating the "customary practices" of the site by wearing a tallit. They did not pray in the very spacious part of the Western Wall plaza allotted to the men, but in the smaller area designated for women. All three women are members of "Women of the Wall," an Israeli organization of women from all streams of Judaism who have been gathering together every Rosh Hodesh (first of the month) for over 20 years for one purpose only: to exercise their right to pray at the Western Wall.

From the point of view of most Jews in the world, Conservative and Reform Jews, a woman wrapped in a tallit is not unusual; it is Judaism. But of all places, here in the State of Israel, the Jewish state, women are hauled off by police for performing a Jewish ritual. And irony of ironies, the police station was the very same one to which British authorities took Moshe Segal in 1930.

Photographs from the first half of the 20th century show that before the Western Wall was under Israeli sovereignty, men and women prayed there standing together side by side. The area around the Wall was narrow and humble, but it belonged to everyone. My grandmother, Naomi-Zissel, who lived in the Old City as a child, told me of those days.

Following the Six Day War, administration of the Western Wall site was given to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the early years, a broader sense of community prevailed. If you look at photos of the plaza from the 1970s and compare them to contemporary ones, you can see that the barrier separating men and women has grown higher. Starting in the 1980s, women began to receive nasty looks if they were dressed "immodestly," and have even been obligated to wrap themselves in ragged scarves before being allowed to approach the stones of the Wall.

We must now admit to ourselves what has befallen us. The Western Wall was liberated, yet free religious access has been obliterated. The Wall has been captured lock, stock and barrel, hijacked by a group of extremists who represent a minority among the Jewish people, a minority in Israel as well as around the world. And there is also a High Commissioner, the "Rabbi" of the Western Wall, who has been free to institute greater stringencies and prohibitions, and raise the barriers separating men from women, all according to his will. Sadly, the government and the Israeli police, yielding to the political pressure of the ultra-Orthodox, enforce his directives.

In the ongoing process of segregation, the Western Wall has been transformed from a treasured national symbol to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Hadassah women can build hospitals in Israel, but they cannot pray or sing at this holy site. The arrest carried out by the police symbolizes to Diaspora Jewry how far the State of Israel has distanced itself from them. Projects such as Birthright and Masa attempt to educate Jewish youth from around the world that Israel is also their country, but this latest folly makes this all the more difficult. How sad. The State of Israel is the only democracy in the world where Jews do not enjoy full religious freedoms.

Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall
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