In a petition filed with the Israel’s High Court of Justice today, a group of feminist activists argues that the government-funded and appointed Chief Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall) Shmuel Rabinowitz’s refusal to allow them to use publicly owned Torah scrolls or bring their own privately owned scroll to the holy site violates their legal right to equal treatment in the public sphere.
Small Feminist Group Files Suit Against Haredi Kotel Rabbi Who Won’t Let Them Read From A Torah Scroll
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
In a petition filed with the Israel’s High Court of Justice today, a group of feminist activists argues that the government-funded and appointed Chief Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall) Shmuel Rabinowitz’s refusal to allow them to use publicly owned Torah scrolls or bring their own privately owned scroll to the holy site violates their legal right to equal treatment in the public sphere, Ha’aretz reported. The petition also argues that Rabinowitz does not have the legal right to issue the ban.
The petition was reportedly filed by the Center for Women’s Justice, which is representing four members of Original Women of the Wall (O-WoW), a small group that broke away from the much larger Women of the Wall (WoW) after WoW accepted the government plan to open an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. O-WoW, whose members are predominately Orthodox, objected because they did not want to pray in a place where men and women pray together. Instead, O-WoW wanted to be granted the right to pray as they see fit, including publicly reading from a Torah scroll, in the women’s section of the Kotel proper.
The government plan to create the egalitarian prayer space, first proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and which was supposed to be contiguous with the Kotel proper, share the same main entrances and exits as the Kotel proper, and be given equal prominence to the Kotel proper, was never realistic despite government claims to the contrary, something FailedMessiah was first to report. Two years later, the recent deterioration of Israel’s internal security situation exposed the flaws in the government’s still unfulfilled plan and put it in near-permanent hiatus.
In a separate action in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, the Center for Women’s Justice reportedly filed a suit – apparently also on behalf of O-WoW (the Ha’aretz report is unclear) – for women being who were denied access to the Torah scrolls at the Kotel on three separate occasions. The suit is based on an Israeli law which prohibits gender discrimination in public places. The center is seeking NIS 150,000 (about $39,000) in damages.
Rabinowitz told Ha’aretz via email that O-WoW and the Center for Women’s Justice were wrong to sue because the now two year old negotiations between the government, WoW and himself over creating the egalitarian prayer space were still ongoing.
"We should not solve one problem while lighting a fire in another spot," Rabinowitz wrote.
The Center for Women’s Justice was dismissive of Rabinowitz, who in the past has blamed haredi violence against WoW on WoW’s “provocations.”
“[Rabinowitz’s decree banning women from using one of the Kotel’s Torah scrolls is yet another] example of what happens when the state cedes its authority to theocratic bodies that do not believe in human rights or equality under the law,” Susan Weiss, the director of the Center for Women’s Justice, told Ha’aretz.
Two weeks ago, for the second year in a row Rabinowitz rejected WoW’s request to have women included in the official state Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony held each year at the Kotel. He also again refused to allow WoW to use the large public menorahs kept at the Kotel.
The Jerusalem District Court ruled in April 2013 that it is not a violation of “local custom” for women to wear tefillin (prayer shawls), tefillin (phylacteries), and pray out loud at the Kotel – a direct rejection of Rabinowitz’s claims. Before that ruling, police routinely arrested WoW members who tried to wear a tallit or tefillin and regularly harassed the group.
Police also routinely stood by as haredim spit on WoW members, threw water bottles and chairs at them, and took other action to disrupt WoW’s prayers. The court sharply reprimanded police for that inaction. Police also told the court WoW’s prayers and their attempts to wear tallits and tefillin “provoked” haredim, and told the court that therefore police had the right to stop WoW to protect the public order. The court strongly lashed out at police for this claim as well and ordered them to arrest the haredi wrongdoers and stop harassing WoW. Even so, in practice violent haredim who attempt to hurt WoW members or disrupt WoW’s prayers are almost never arrested, and the handful that have been aren’t prosecuted.
The previous government did not appeal the Jerusalem District Court’s ruling.