Up against the Wall
October 24, 2012
A woman is detained, strip-searched, dragged on the floor, and tossed in a cell with a car thief and an alleged prostitute. The police don’t file charges, but detain her for no other reason than that she dared to pray as a Jew, wrapped in a prayer shawl.
If this happened in Russia, Indonesia, or nearly any other country on earth, the Jewish outcry would be universal. But because this happened in Israel, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the response is once again revealing a deep chasm between Israel and the Diaspora when it comes to religious pluralism.
The victim was Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. On Oct. 16, she was detained at the Wall for leading some 200 members of Hadassah (!) in prayers while wearing a tallit. Police have not disputed her account of her detention. While no charges were filed, Israeli law forbids women from reading from the Torah or wearing prayer shawls or tefillin in the Western Wall plaza, lest such acts “offend the feelings of others.”
American-Jewish groups, like the Union for Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League, expressed outraged over Hoffman’s treatment, the latest in a string of such incidents. Israeli politicians were largely silent.
It was never inevitable that Judaism’s holiest site would fall under the jurisdiction of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities. That it has become in effect a massive Orthodox synagogue is the result of a series of political decisions and back-room bargains among various power brokers.
The Hoffman case calls for two responses, one immediate and one long-term. Authorities must immediately review police procedures at the Wall and train officers in enforcing these regulations, however retrograde, with sensitivity. And in the long term, Israel needs to open a dialogue over what the Western Wall is and should be for the Jewish people in all its diversity. Jerusalem itself, under Israel’s humane jurisdiction, has managed to ensure religious freedom for many faiths without “offending the feelings of others.” A similarly inclusive approach can be found for the Western Wall.