Profile: Women in Israel Suffer Defeat in Supreme Court Over the Right to Hold Public Prayer Service at the Western Wall

All Things Considered: April 6, 2003

Women at the Western Wall


In Israel today, the Supreme Court denied a suit by women seeking equal rights to conduct prayer services at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. The court said prayer services by women at the wall could be disruptive and that the government must arrange an alternative site for them to hold their services. The court decision was a blow to Jewish feminists. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.


After a 14-year legal battle, the members of a group called Women of the Wall hoped they would finally be allowed to hold a public prayer service reading from the Torah, the Old Testament, at the Western Wall. But the Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 that the women's service could endanger public order and lead to rioting by Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Anat Hoffman, a longtime Jerusalem city councilor and the director of the Religious Action Center, was close to tears as the verdict was read.

Ms. ANAT HOFFMAN (Jerusalem City Councilor): Jewish women cannot be seen at the holiest place for the Jews. They are supposed to be at a hidden place far away from view. We are second-rate citizens praying at a second-rate place. Everybody knows where the holy place is, and that's where we want to be.

GRADSTEIN: The court reversed an earlier Supreme Court decision by three justices that the women can hold a public prayer service at the wall. The majority, including the president of the Supreme Court, ruled the women can hold their prayer at a nearby archaeological site called Robinson's Arch that is adjacent to the Western Wall, but not part of it. The court said the government must make that site conducive to prayer within a year. The women had previously rejected a compromise which would allow them to pray at Robinson's Arch.

Women of the Wall includes women from all streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Most of the founders of the group were immigrants to Israel from the United States, where the group has thousands of supporters. Every month for the past 14 years, several dozen women have held a prayer service at the Western Wall, but have not been able to publicly read the Torah or pray wearing prayer shawls. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have spit at them and cursed them, and police have had to intervene several times.

The Ultra-Orthodox say that women are forbidden to take on religious roles usually performed by men. They also say women singing out loud is sexually arousing and forbidden for men to hear. Naomi Chazan, a longtime Knesset member and women's rights activist, says the court has given in to the Ultra-Orthodox.

Ms. NAOMI CHAZAN (Knesset Member): I think it's really a shame. I think it's a shame for religious pluralism in Israel. I think it once again makes women second-class citizens in this country. I think it's a very unfortunate decision.

GRADSTEIN: After the verdict, some of the women gathered outside the Supreme Court to say a short prayer written by one of the members.

Unidentified Woman: May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among your people, Israel, or in all the world. God of justice, let us (unintelligible) to see justice and salvation soon.

Group of Women: (Singing in foreign language)

GRADSTEIN: They vow that despite the Supreme Court decision they will not stop fighting for their right to pray the way they want at Judaism's holiest site. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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