Women launch sit-in at Western Wall to protest continued gender segregation

“They’ve taken the keys to the holiest site and just given them to one extremist group," remarked one protester

Published August 26, 2013 12:44PM (EDT)


In April, an Israeli court ruled that women were legally entitled to pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and reading aloud from the Torah, a practice that had previously been banned by the Orthodox rabbis who manage the holy site.

But the court ruling has done little to integrate the Western Wall or end clashes between the two groups, and Israeli officials' latest effort to create peace seems to have failed as well.

The unveiling on Sunday of a mixed-gender prayer area near the Western Wall, intended to appease both sides, was denounced as discriminatory by Women of the Wall, the feminist group behind the push to integrate the holy site.

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Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said the new plaza, in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, was an interim solution until a more comprehensive — and contentious — plan for a mixed-prayer section could overcome bureaucratic hurdles and opposition from archaeologists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Muslim authorities. Built for about $80,000, the 4,800-square-foot platform is a “compromise,” Mr. Bennett said, whose “goal is to unify all the walks of Jewish life.”

Instead, the announcement ignited new divisions. Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism offered cautious praise, while Women of the Wall, the group whose monthly prayer sessions have prompted arrests and mass demonstrations over the past year, started a 24-hour sit-in to protest it. The prime minister’s office distanced itself from the new plaza, releasing a statement saying the government had yet to reach a decision on the matter.

Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, called Mr. Bennett’s new plaza a “monstrosity” that “looks like a sunbathing deck” or a “rock-star stage.” She said she would continue to push for access to the women’s section of the main area. As the sun fell Sunday, she and about a dozen supporters chanted the afternoon prayer under an Israeli flag near the Western Wall, then settled in with study materials for a long night.

“They’ve taken the keys to the holiest site and just given them to one extremist group that uses violence,” said Ms. Hoffman, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, who have in recent months shouted and spat at the women’s group. “We have to be vigilant and fight for every centimeter. We are equal.”

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Israel Jerusalem Judaism Orthodox Judaism Religion Women Of The Wall