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Op-eds

What happens when ladies don’t play ‘nice’

  • Geoff
When thousands of ultra-Orthodox women swarmed to the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem last Friday to harass women belonging to the feminist Women of the Wall organisation who were attempting to pray there, it created shock when looked at from afar. But both sides were doing the right thing.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 14, 2019

It was a veritable battle: the Women of the Wall, consisting of Reform and Conservative Jewish women, many from the United States, were celebrating Rosh Hodesh and the 30th anniversary of their organisation’s founding.

They started praying in the women’s section when ultra-Orthodox women, who object to liberal groups like them, started kicking and pushing them. Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs told Haaretz that the scene was a nightmare and she sustained bruises. Two elderly women on crutches were evacuated by paramedics. Fortunately, the group was determined to carry on.

The group then moved to the egalitarian section where women and men pray together, and were joined by men who had come to show solidarity. Ultra-Orthodox women and men surrounded them, trying to prevent them from praying.

Nava Meirsdorf, an Israeli woman studying to become a conservative rabbi, was reciting her morning prayers when she felt “all sorts of things” being thrown on her and saw a stampede of ultra-Orthodox young men storming in her direction.

It was an unseemly sight as they pushed, spat on and cursed her. A male supporter of Women of the Wall, the director of a Jewish pluralism watchdog organisation, had fringes from his tallit and his tefillin torn off, and someone threatened to murder him. They were called “stinking leftists”.

All of this may seem perverse, but it is not. For one thing, it is good that women are doing the fighting. Often, men bear the brunt of fighting about interpretations of religion, while women are left behind with the old adage, “What are girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice.” Discarding the “nice” burden, these women, together with their men at the Kotel, were acting as a force rather than just looking after their children and households.

It epitomises the healthy soul of Judaism – an ongoing contestation over what it means to be Jewish that has endured for millennia and inspired generations of great thinkers. Judaism has no pope to lay down the law on things of that nature; it is up to the people and the sages.

It evokes pride to see women’s groups take off the gloves and engage directly, instead of keeping a polite distance and being nice. Even so-called incorrect behaviour – which is what each group has accused the other of – means that someone has been exposed to a different view, rather than being stuck in a single one.

Last Friday’s clash coincided with International Women's Day. The fight for women’s rights epitomised by the day evokes dramatic images of the bra-burning protests against men in the 1960s as part of the women’s liberation movement. But what about a situation in which a woman finds herself battling against other women, rather than against men, even if it is for religious rights, such as last Friday? Most ultra-Orthodox women would probably say they have their rights and are not forced by men to follow their lifestyle. The same for Women of the Wall.

Who is right? Both groups are right to fight for their beliefs. Who will win? Probably neither, the positions are too far apart. The battle about Judaism will go on, as it should. The Kotel is as appropriate a place as any to have this sort of argument.

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