Why new Israeli women's group opposes feminist activists at the Western Wall

Women of the Wall, which challenges Orthodox custom at Judaism's holiest site, were once again crowded out of the women's prayer section today by female opponents.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A Jewish female activist from the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, wears a prayer shawl and Tefillin, a set of leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments that Orthodox tradition reserves solely for men to don, during a monthly prayer session near the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday.

Feminist activists seeking freedom of worship at Judaism’s holiest site were once again shut out of the women’s prayer section at the Western Wall today by women who oppose their efforts.

The activists, known as Women of the Wall (WOW), have been seeking for 25 years to challenge the Orthodox customs that govern the Western Wall and limit how and where women can pray. In recent months, as their campaign has gained momentum, it has also garnered serious push back – mostly from other women.

RELATED: In Israel, Women of the Wall hit raw nerve over religious clout in state life

WOW activists have described their female opponents as trapped in a male-dominated paradigm, in which they are simply doing the bidding of their "rabbi-handlers." But actually the counter-protest is not driven by men, but by a group called Women for the Wall. The group says it is tapping into Orthodox frustration with WOW's attempts to subvert longstanding Jewish tradition in the name of women's rights and religious freedom.

“I just got so fed up,” says cofounder Ronit Peskin, who decided to take action after WOW declined a compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky that would have allowed them to pray at a separate, less conspicuous area of the Wall, albeit with some limitations.

So in April, she and Leah Aharoni established Women for the Wall, and began making calls to rabbis and politicians mobilize a show of support for Orthodox tradition. They then helped orchestrate flood tides of schoolgirls and other women opposed to WOW, who came pouring into the women’s prayer section so that there was no room for the activist group.

Even at today's monthly service, the women’s section was overflowing despite calls by some rabbinical leaders for ultra-Orthodox women to stay away given the sensitive timing – today was the final day of Ramadan and Jerusalem's main Muslim holy sites are located just above the Western Wall.

About 200-250 supporters of WOW, including some men, were relegated to a fenced-off section at the back of the Western Wall plaza, where police protected them as they prayed and sang. A small crowd of ultra-Orthodox men, with swinging side curls and jeering faces, blew shrill whistles in an attempt to drown them out.

Ms. Peskin and Ms. Aharoni, though they oppose WOW, vociferously disagree with such provocation from ultra-Orthodox.

"These foolish boys are the unwitting allies of Women Of the Wall, and their best PR tool," said Aharoni in a press release. "Screaming and violence do not belong at the holy site. The Kotel [Western Wall] is not the place for a media circus or standoffs between Jews."

Yet Peskin, Aharoni, and the thousands of other women who have come to the Western Wall are sometimes lumped in with such provocateurs. One WOW activist, Phyllis Chesler, called her group's female opponents a “psychological lynch mob.”

“People are associating us with [the male protestors] when we probably oppose them even more than [WOW] do,” says Peskin in a phone interview.

She, like Aharoni, is an American immigrant to Israel and admits that without fluent Hebrew it has been hard to get the word out to the public about Women for the Wall. Even teenage girls whose rabbis call on them to come may not be aware of the group, let alone its non-combative approach.

Peskin says she sees WOW as fellow Jewish sisters who deserve her love and respect. But she disagrees with the characterization of their campaign as a fight for religious freedom and a liberation of women from religious coercion.

"[I]n reality, they wish to coerce changes upon those who prefer to pray in full accordance with thousands of years of Jewish tradition," she wrote in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post today.

“Personally as an American I totally support freedom of religion,” says Peskin, who moved to Israel seven years ago. “But I don’t really see much support for freedom of religion coming from [WOW].”

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