There have been a number of exciting developments in the fight for religious pluralism and equality at the Kotel in Israel. This may signify the start of significant change in Israeli society in the way in which religious affairs are administered. For many Israelis and Jews around the world, these changes would be very welcome and long overdue.
One major event was an historic, precedent setting court ruling in April. A number of women were arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing tallitoth (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) in the women's section of the Kotel in April, 2013. Arrests like this had been commonplace for the past few years, with the police generally carrying what they viewed to be their interpretation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling from a number of years earlier. However, on this occasion, the Israeli court held that there was no basis for charging women with "disturbing the peace" for praying out load in the women's section of the Kotel while wearing tallithoth and tefillin. This New York Times article discusses the court ruling.
The result of that court ruling was a planned, large scale Rosh Hodesh service in the women's section for this past Friday (May 10, 2013). Knowing that the police would no longer be arresting women for "disturbing the peace" when holding a prayer service, various Haredi leaders publicly called for their followers to show up at the Kotel and protest the women's prayer service. The result was a violent clash in which Haredi women and men threw garbage, water and other objects at the women as they prayed. Israeli on-line news source YNet covered the story here. Three ultra-Orthodox students were arrested and the police, for the first time in years, actually protected the women rather than the Haredi demonstrators. Finally, those who were really disturbing the peace were the ones arrested.
This story comes on the heels of various announcements indicating that the Israeli government is close to a deal that will see the Kotel expanded to include a section for mixed prayer (men and women together). The Kotel now only includes separate sections and women are currently not permitted to bring a Torah scroll to the women's sided. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency and the person charged with coming up with a solution to this issue, has said that the first stage of his Kotel renovation project could be completed within 10 months. This will be a tremendous move towards accommodating different types of religious practises in Israel and may will signify a change in attitude in Israel towards non-Orthodox Jewish religious groups and movements.
Religious pluralism is an issue that is important to Minister Yair Lapid, who holds significant power in the current coalition government. So it is not a huge surprise that some things are beginning to change.
Even among many Masorti Jews, there are differences of opinion about how the Kotel should be administered. At our shul, a fully egalitarian Conservative congregation, we had quite a heated debate a few weeks ago over the issue of whether the Israeli government should impose a pluralistic solution at the Kotel itself. I personally see no reason why we could not divide the Kotel into three instead of two, with "his, hers and ours" sections. This would be a compromise that should be equally unsatisfactory for almost everyone - the hallmark of a good compromise.
Some argued that since this is such a holy site, it should be administered in ultra-orthodox fashion. This makes little sense to me. The Kotel is not a small ultra-orthodox shul. It is a signficant, symbolic, national-historic religious site. It should be accessible to all. The notion that women could be arrested for "disturbing the peace" for wearing a Tallith or for singing out loud in the women's section at the Kotel is just plain ridiculous. Similarly, the notion that Conservative or Reform groups cannot hold prayer services at the Kotel is also wrong-headed and too exclusionary.
But Israel now seems headed in a different directon on this issue and that may signify upcoming changes in other areas of religious pluralism in Israel. Stay tuned as this is certain to create lots of controversy.