Sunday, December 16, 2012

Letting the bullies win

Rosh Hodesh Elul was my nephew's bar-mitzvah at the Kotel. As we were walking to the women's section we passed a woman in a Tallit being escorted away by police for wearing a men's tallit. At the Kotel itself there was a group of Women of the Wall davening in multi-coloured tallitot (apparently only the traditional black and white ones were considered "illegal" on that occasion) with a stony-faced police officer standing right in front of them and filming their every action on video while another few officers stood facing the group of praying women just daring them to do something criminal like whipping out a Torah scroll. It would have been comic had it not been so serious.

They were singing a respectful and beautiful (and not overly loud) Hallel near the back of the women's section at the Kotel, in no way was it attention grabbing and in no way was it audible from anywhere near the mehitza or men's section (should that have been an issue).

The previous Friday night there had been loads of women in the Kotel women's section singing much louder at Kabbalat Shabbat, including a large group of uniformed female soldiers belting out a selection of vaguely "spiritual" NewAgey Israeli pop hits in lieu of formal prayer from the liturgy and a huge group from some Israel women's programme for Americans where the leader was not only getting them to practically shout out the greatest hits of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach during Kabbalat Shabbat but encouraging them to dance in a big wild circle right in the middle of the women's section, which unsurprisingly enough was incredibly crowded on an August Friday night.

If anything was a public nuisance that night, or possibly a hazard, it was this scrum of ladies insisting on their huge dance circle right in the middle of the already jam-packed women's section.

No police intervened (nor did anyone else) to stop these women from loudly singing Kabbalat Shabbat and even Israeli pop songs, and none of the many very Hareidi women also davening there complained, objected or any way approached these women to stop or in any way tone it down.

Sunday morning though the modest gathering of women saying Hallel together, some wrapped in prayer shawls, which admittedly, most Jews would consider men's garb, are suddenly public enemy number one, a threat to public order, so dangerous they have tense police hounding their every move and at least one of their number had to be arrested for the heinous crime of wearing a masculine style black and white tallit.

Meanwhile above the Kotel, on the Temple Mount, Judaism's most sacred of sacred places, Jews can't pray or even close their eyes or hum a tune because it "upsets" the local Muslims and they tend to get violent and riot when upset, so for the police it's easier to arrest the peaceful Jews who just want to pray at their most holy site. As a religious Jew I and many others are intimidated by the police of the state of Israel no less from going to visit the Temple Mount.

At the Kotel Women of the Wall upsets the Hareidi community and some elements within the Hareidi community get a bit violent and occasionally riot or burn trash cans when they do so, so for the police it's easier to just arrest the peacefully praying women who want to make a feminist, but peaceful, point.

It's called giving in to the bullies.

Now I'm aware that many of those who support the Women of the Wall and many of those who support the right of Jews to pray upon the Temple Mount disagree with each other theologically and politically, but the struggles they face for religious freedom are the same. Until both realise that it is in their mutual interest to pursue these cases of police injustice and downright brutality and the failure of the state to ensure that people of all denominations are free to pray peacefully at their sacred shrines nothing is going to change. The state will continue to pacify the bullies at the expense of protecting the right to worship for all.

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