A dark cloud hangs over Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary celebrations slated for November 4, as the movement stands on the verge of a major split.
More than 100 supporters from North America, who are taking part in a special anniversary trip, will join WOW’s Israeli members at a monthly prayer meeting at the Western Wall, followed by a reception and seminar.
They will be celebrating their success in uniting Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated feminists behind the mission of fighting for the right of women to pray freely at the Western Wall.
But ironically, at this key moment in its history, the group is more divided than ever.
WOW has always insisted on meeting in the Kotel’s bustling prayer gallery reserved for women. It rejected suggestions that because its prayer practices upset the ultra-Orthodox, who dominate this site, it should relocate to a quieter part of the Wall. But in early October, WOW made a U-turn and agreed to leave the Kotel plaza for a stretch of the Wall that was excavated in the 19th century, known as Robinson’s Arch.
The decision, approved by an 9-2 majority on the WOW board, left some of the organization’s members devastated at what they feel is the acceptance of a second-rate site. Now 21 of WOW’s founders, members and supporters have signed a letter pledging to continue fighting for rights at the main Kotel plaza, regardless of whatever agreements the formal WOW leadership makes with the government.
“We are committed to our dream and to the work needed to fully realize and sustain it,” the dissenters wrote. “We will maintain this commitment even if others accept the archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch instead of the Kotel.”
WOW’s decision to compromise comes as the government is working on a proposal to establish a large egalitarian prayer section at Robinson’s Arch. Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit is crafting the proposal in consultation with Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
The so-called Mandelblit Plan is expected to be released before the end of the year, and key decisions are currently being made about the extent to which it will follow follows Sharansky’s ambitious ideas for the egalitarian section, and the extent to which it will be a watered down version of those plans.
WOW’s leadership believes that its offer to leave the Kotel’s women’s section, effectively ending the conflict between the Haredim and the feminists, is a bargaining chip that will allow it to secure Sharansky’s plan in a more or less unadulterated form. For example, WOW says that it will only move if the egalitarian plaza is the same size as the existing prayer site, receives equal funding, and can be accessed through the same plaza as the Orthodox-dominated section.
While Sharansky has suggested these conditions, and the major streams of American Judaism have signed on, Mandelblit is under no obligation to accept them. WOW spokeswoman Shira Pruce told the Forward that her group is also demanding some conditions that were not part of the Sharansky plan, but declined to state what they are.
For Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of WOW, the opportunity for the group to be involved in planning awaiting her group in the egalitarian section was too good to miss. “It’s as if the Alabama bus company would invite Rosa Parks for a consultation on how to run the company in future,” she said.
But in return for WOW’s involvement in the process, the government expects an understanding that the push to accept women reading Torah and wearing prayer shawls in the Kotel’s women’s section will stop.
“I think ultimately the process will lead to one Kotel section having official Orthodox status and the other having egalitarian status,” said a government source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
If WOW cannot rein in its rebels, it could find itself excluded from consultations regarding the new egalitarian section, as it would be unable to guarantee to the government that the standoff between the Haredim and the feminists is over.
“If they are going to continue as before the whole concept falls down,” said Israel Kimhi, director of the Jerusalem desk at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
For their part, the dissenters are insistent that they won’t back down, claiming that leaving the women’s section would be akin to saying that the struggles of recent years have been in vain.
“In 2003 we could have easily removed ourselves from the Western Wall plaza to Robinson’s Arch — it was there then and it’s there now,” said Bonna Devora Haberman, one of WOW’s founders and a signatory to the protest letter. “We’ve not yearned 25 years to be displaced from the central gathering point of the Jewish people at the Western Wall plaza.”
Cheryl Birkner Mack, a WOW member who resigned from the organization’s board in protest, plans to stand firm because the new section will be constructed at the site of archeological excavations, not at the centuries-old pilgrimage site. “I’m not interested in bigger, better, nicer, I’m interested in holiness and they’re not suddenly going to impose holiness on the new site,” said Mack, who also signed the letter.
Hoffman believes that there is no room for the dissenter’s ideological rigidity today and commented that WOW’s failure to negotiate for an alternative site back in the 1990s was “in retrospect a mistake” — though she said its negotiating power now is stronger.
The schism over the location of prayer meetings runs so deep among WOW members that dissenters may even face off with the group’s board over control of the WOW name. Hoffman insists that the board owns the Women of the Wall brand, but Mack said that “morally and ethically” the dissenters should lay claim to the name. If the dissenters organize events or meetings under the WOW banner, this could result in a legal challenge from the board.
Even if Hoffman’s camp retains control of WOW, and negotiates a satisfactory egalitarian section, some experts believe it is far from the end of the feminist battle over the Kotel. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of Bar Ilan University’s Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and a member of the U.N. Committee For Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, believes that a deal by WOW will not silence calls for women’s rights at the main Kotel section in the long term. “Things will evolve and things will change,” she said.
Halperin-Kaddari said of WOW board members: “Politically they took a correct decision in accepting this, but it’s certainly not the end of the issue — it’s excluding them from the area considered to be the most sacred [in Judaism].”
The dispute within WOW also places its considerable American supporters in an awkward position. When queried about the split, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the Forward: “the Reform and Conservative movements have embraced the Sharansky proposal on condition that it be fully implemented. So therefore, we’re sympathetic and appreciative of majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening of a larger area of the Wall to be areas of prayer that are accessible to all people, all Jews, is the most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall.”
Maya Shwayder also contributed to this story. Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org