Women of the Wall Prepare to Fight Bill That Would Outlaw Their Prayer

A bill preventing women from conducting prayer services at the Western Wall has been postponed, but it’s only a matter of time until the controversial issue explodes once again.

The legislation, crafted by members of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, is an amendment to an existing bill forbidding mixed prayer at the Wall.

In the past, the issue has galvanized American Jews, who generally support religious pluralism in Israel. The new bill comes at a time when Israelis and Diaspora Jews are stressing the need to stand united as Israel faces Palestinian violence and diplomatic attempts to isolate the Jewish state.

The new legislation would forbid any religious ceremony at the Wall that involves women taking out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing the shofar or wearing a prayer shawl or tefillin.

According to the bill’s original wording, violators would be imprisoned for seven years.

However, legislator Avraham Ravitz, one of the bill’s sponsors, told JTA he thought imprisonment was “superfluous” and provocative. He said he encouraged the bill’s author, Knesset Finance Committee chairman Ya’akov Litzman, to get rid of the imprisonment provision.

The Knesset was to vote on the bill Dec. 4, but the vote was postponed after a series of suicide bombings killed 26 Israelis in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Even if it passed the initial vote, the bill would need three subsequent votes, known as readings, before becoming law.

Women of the Wall have been fighting since the late 1980s for their right to pray in the manner they want at the holy site. Given the tense security situation now in Israel, they eschewed the type of public demonstrations they have mounted in the past.

“The last thing we wanted to do is demonstrate opposite the Knesset,” said Jerusalem Council member Anat Hoffman, a leading member of Women of the Wall. “Israelis were too worried about a million other things to focus on this.”

This time, Hoffman and several others launched a fax and letter campaign — primarily from American Jews — to key Israeli officials. Some 1,000 faxes were sent to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

Officials from the Labor Party threatened to leave the government if the bill came to the Knesset.

The bill was postponed, but only temporarily. Women of the Wall and their supporters are taking credit for the deferment.

“Litzman caved,” Hoffman said. “This isn’t a victory, but we taught something to the bully of the Knesset.”

As Ravitz sees it, he and fellow party members are not trying to be bullies, but they consider the spectacle of women reading from the Torah and donning religious articles typically worn by men as an affront to Jewish tradition.

“There are plenty of other places to pray, places to pray with a pure heart, places where God hears your voice,” Ravitz said. “Why tease and bring up hatred and fighting?”

He said he does not necessarily want to pursue legislation, “but if we have to create a law, we will.”

Afer years of legal wrangling, Israel’s High Court of Justice in May 2000 issued a landmark ruling recognizing the right of Women of the Wall to hold prayer services at the Wall.

The government was given six months to implement the ruling. Instead, it asked the court to reconsider.

Nineteen months later, the sides continue to argue over whether the women must be allowed to pray right at the Wall, as they are demanding, or whether the ruling can be construed to have the group to pray in a corner of the huge Western Wall plaza or at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site on the southern side of the Wall.

In any case, the fervently Orthodox legislators who proposed the bill do not want Women of the Wall anywhere near the area.

When the bill comes up again, political observers predict that many Likud legislators will absent themselves in order to distance themselves from the issue and avoid conflict with the fervently Orthodox politicians.

The bill has “a good chance of passing, at least through the first reading,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

Sacks, who originally hails from Philadelphia, and several other American immigrants were among those who mobilized the letter and fax campaign.

Ravitz said he didn’t know about the campaign, but thinks it is a good idea to involve the greater Jewish world in the issue.

“I think the Knesset needs to think about the Jews of the world, and how matters here concern them,” he said. “We don’t need to do what they think, but to realize that we’re all partners in what happens here.”

To help with the fax and letter campaign, Sacks had access to some 700 rabbis, most of them in North America, through Ravnet, the e-mail database of the Rabbinical Assembly, as well as to some 4,000 subscribers to the movement’s newsletter in Israel.

Also involved in the campaign were Rahel Jaskow, an American who made aliyah in 1991, and Hinda Gross, a former president of Hadassah Israel.

“I e-mailed everybody I knew,” said Jaskow, a singer who manages three Web sites, one of which is for women’s prayer groups. “It went out amazingly quickly to a huge number of people.”

For Jaskow, her involvement in Women of the Wall is about prayer, not politics.

“I’m the one who reminds everyone that even with all the politics, we are still a prayer group,” Jaskow said.

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