Foreign Policy Blogs

Respecting Prayer in Jerusalem


A turning point may have been reached in Jerusalem with the development of a recent plan to offer a sacred area each to two separate groups. Alas, even before implementation of that plan could occur, though, a riot and violence erupted.

That paradigm has torpedoed peace processes between Israel and the Palestinians time and time again. Whether terrorism from Hamas or Israeli settler attacks, peace plan attempts meet the same fate–irrelevance.

But today’s clashes in Jerusalem have nothing to do with the peace process, and instead reflect the very divergent interpretation of Judaism by the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and a group believing in egalitarian prayer. But, like the peace process, stone throwing and police intervention became necessary.

The dispute stems from the role of women in prayer — particularly whether they should wear the Jewish prayer shawl known as a talit, don prayer boxes known as tefilin, and read directly from the Torah. The ultra-orthodox, who have largely controlled the Western Wall for decades, argue that women should not participate in those ways during the prayer service. Conversely, a group of women–known as the Women of the Wall–believe that both genders should have access to the holy site and be able to practice Judaism in their own ways.

A ruling in the Jerusalem District Court sided with the Women of the Wall, and Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced that it would not appeal the ruling. As a result, women can now pray at the Western Wall while wearing prayer garments and even, if they choose, read from the Torah.

In comes preparation for Shabbat. Friday morning, a time filled with joyous anticipation that the day of rest is near. Hours filled with bustling around Jerusalem to make all last minute purchases before the Shabbat meal and all comes to a stand still. However, this Shabbat would prove to be radically different, as the Women of the Wall, emboldened by the recent court ruling, prepare to exert the right affirmed to them by praying at the Western Wall. On the other side, thousands from the ultra-orthodox community were committed to stopping that from happening.

As expected, ultra-orthodox men surrounded and intimidated the women, blocking their path. Rocks were thrown at the women praying, as police intervened to prevent further violence and disruption.

The irony of this moment should not be lost. Not too long ago, Jews of any stripe were not welcome to pray at the Western Wall, the most holy site in Judaism. There were periods during Ottoman times when Jews could pray at the Western Wall, which was used as the garbage dump for the Temple Mount. Yet, Jews would pray in those squalid conditions, with sewage–not just rocks–raining down on them from the Temple Mount.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, developed a plan to provide a separate egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch toward the southern end of the Wall. That plan has come under fire for, among other reasons, not being archaeologically feasible. The first phase of this plan could be completed within a year.

The urgency to implement the Sharansky plan–or another tactic–is clear. Even in the best case scenario, the Women of the Wall and the ultra-orthodox community will likely spar for months. An intermediate solution is necessary, or else similar riots are prone to break out in future months.

Both the ultra-orthodox and egalitarian Jewish communities deserve an opportunity to practice their faith as they choose, without harassment or in the midst of purposefully provocative actions.

Since Israel obtained control of Jerusalem, followers of all the city’s religions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–can for the first time in history openly pray at their holy sites. Without an immediate and long-term solution. that dynamic is liable to change among the city’s Jews.




Ben Moscovitch

Ben Moscovitch is a Washington D.C.-based political reporter and has covered Congress, homeland security, and health care. He completed an intensive two-year Master's in Middle Eastern History program at Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on the roots of Palestinian democratic reforms. Ben graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in English Literature. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. Twitter follow: @benmoscovitch

Areas of Focus:
Middle East; Israel-Palestine; Politics