By Phyllis Chesler, for Human Rights Service
For years now, Israel has been routinely condemned by the United Nations for trying to defend herself; a veritable public relations hailstorm has been unleashed against the only Jewish state. Orwellian Big Lies have dominated the world media’s reporting on Israel. Jews/Zionists have been falsely accused of controlling the world, committing massacres, purposefully murdering civilians, poisoning Palestinian babies and causing Palestinian sterility, etc. Since 2005, Israeli officials have been unable to travel to Britain lest they be arrested and tried as “war criminals” in the UK.
I began actively defending Israel from the moment Arafat launched the malevolent Intifada of 2000 against her. Although anti-Semitism had been on my personal and intellectual radar since the early 1970s, this time, I began to document a new and lethal form of anti-Semitism, a “perfect storm” in which fundamentalist Muslims, jihadists, and western progressives all agreed that human suffering, every world problem, was Israel’s fault, and could be corrected only if Jews were forced to suffer and the Jewish state abolished. I published a book about this in 2003.
I was demonized for breaking with the politically correct intelligentsia and thus, perhaps, have earned the right to criticize the Jewish state when such criticism is warranted. It breaks my heart to have to do so. But I must—and my criticism has absolutely nothing to do with how Israel treats the Palestinians or its own Arab citizens which is actually, far better than most Muslims are treated in Arab and Muslim countries. My criticism has everything to do with how Israel treats religious Jewish women.
Let me clear. The utterly corrupt United Nations has not earned the right to criticize Israel; I have. If they want to challenge the internal affairs of a nation state, I suggest that they begin with the major human rights atrocities being committed in Afghanistan, Burma, China, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. And that’s just for starters. Once they have done so, I have a human rights abuse for them to explore in Israel.
Ironically, Israel does protect the holy sites of all religions in a way that no Muslim country does. Muslims desecrate and destroy non-Muslim houses of worship, do not allow other religions to openly flourish, and persecute, abduct, exile or murder those of other faiths. Israel does not do this.
But the Jewish state does look the other way when Jewish women, who are praying in a modest and religiously acceptable fashion at Jerusalem’s Western (Wailing) Wall, are attacked, both physically and verbally, by ultra-religious goons. I am talking about Women of the Wall, a group that has now been in existence for twenty-one years.
On December 1st, 1988, I was among the women who prayed together out loud in the women’s section at the Wall for the first time in history; it was a life-changing event. Rivka Haut, the woman who organized this first prayer service, and I, eventually co-wrote a book about this struggle, Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, which we published in 2002. We dedicated the book to the State of Israel but declined to promote its ideas outside of the Jewish media given that Israel was engaged in an existential fight for its very survival.
Please understand: At the Western Wall, there is a very high barrier between the male and female prayer sections. Only someone who is purposely standing on a chair can look over the barrier into the other gender’s section. In the ensuing years, metal chairs, tear gas, and excrement have all been flung at members of Women of the Wall (WOW) while they were praying; ultra-religious zealots, both male and female, have also cursed, stalked, threatened, and physically wrestled with WOW members.
In all this time, the Jewish state has never arrested an ultra-religious male or female for disturbing the peace and the prayers of these sincere and devoted women. Ultra-religious women have harassed, taunted, screamed, and tried to drown out the prayers of Women of the Wall members. They have behaved with extraordinary inhumanity towards other women. Over time, Women of the Wall members have prayed more and more quietly, as far away from the men’s section and the barrier as possible, as far away from the actual Wall as possible.
These religious women have been forced to cower, tremble, and to pray fearfully—just like Jews were once forced to do in Muslim and Arab countries. And during the Spanish Inquisition, I might add. It is an apt comparison given that Jewish and Israeli women in the twenty-first century are now literally being told to “hide” their prayer shawls (tallitot) under their coats when they approach the Wall.
Once, long ago (in 1989), the state hired female guards to drag the quietly praying women away. Believe it or not, WOW members were seen as “disturbing the peace” of the real worshippers—whose concentration was too easily shattered by the very idea that women were praying autonomously and with religious authority. The Israeli Supreme Court issued three separate decisions on our behalf.
What we were doing was never viewed as contrary to an Orthodox interpretation of religious law, but it was seen as disturbing the “sensibilities” of the ultra-religious worshippers who, increasingly, have taken over control of the Wall and have turned it into the kind of synagogue where women are meant to pray silently, each alone, and to never, ever be heard, not even by other women.
The High Court—which has rendered so many favorable decisions on behalf of Palestinian human and civil rights—decided that there was no room at the Inn of Justice for Jewish women and exiled us to another location for the part of our prayer service that involves reading aloud from the Torah (Old Testament). In 2003, at a hearing, the Court decided that it was now illegal for Jewish women to chant aloud from a Torah and to wear prayer shawls (tallitot) at the Wall. Thus, nice Jewish girls (and much older grandmothers) would be considered criminals if they committed either of these acts.
And now, the Jewish state has done the unthinkable. On November 18, 2009, the Jerusalem police arrested Nofrat Frenkel, a fifth-year medical school student and WOW member and interrogated her for nearly two hours; they told her that she was facing a felony charge, and that, if she were to be found guilty, she would never be able to practice medicine in Israel. Frenkel’s crime? She was wearing a prayer shawl (a tallit) without hiding it under her coat, and she was holding (but not chanting from) a Torah scroll.
Then, on January 5, 2010, Anat Hoffman, a veteran leader of Women of the Wall, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council, and the long-time director of the Israeli Religious Action Center was arrested, detained, interrogated, and fingerprinted (!) for the crime of leading Women of the Wall.
In 1988, at our first prayer service, the men on the men’s side stood on chairs, tried to “rush” the women’s section, fomented a near-riot against us. At the time, I thought: “My God, they sound just like Khomeini’s men!” Since then, things have only gotten worse. For example, in 2007, a group of ultra-religious Jewish men in Jerusalem actually beat a woman for refusing to move to the back of the bus! (I am not kidding). And, in January of 2010, a sixty-year old Jerusalem woman sat down at the front of the bus. A very young man demanded that she move. She refused to do so. He began to curse her. She sprayed him with mace. The police were called. Of course, they arrested the woman, not the young man.
Yes, Israel stands head-and-shoulders above its neighbors when it comes to human rights and democracy, even where secular women’s rights are concerned. Compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran, Israel is a paradise on earth for women. However, just like the rest of the Middle East, and like Europe, Israel is being rapidly Islamified where women are concerned, perhaps even more so in terms of women’s role within Judaism.
The ultra-Orthodox view wants women to cover their hair (!), have as many children as possible, remain religiously ignorant, and work at low-level jobs in order to support husbands who study Torah. The Modern Orthodox view, as well as the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist views, are quite different and see Jewish women as fully capable of being learned and authoritative religious leaders, as well as physicians, lawyers, professors, and CEOs.
It is time for the Israeli Parliament to undertake the separation of synagogue and state. Why should Israeli fundamentalists be allowed to hide behind God for the crimes that they alone are willing to commit against religious Jewish women? And why should a modern democratic state which is committed to religious pluralism empower the least tolerant of its citizens?
Note: Women of the Wall may be reached through their website