Walled Off

When I was in Israel last December, my tour group made a stop at the Western Wall.  After we passed through security, we were left to roam the plaza and approach the Wall itself, dividing into two groups:  Men to the left, women to the right.

I had not been aware such a system existed, but indeed it does:  The Western Wall Plaza is partitioned so that men and women pray in separate quarters.

Can you guess which area is bigger?

As we face a changing of the guard in the Vatican with the pending retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, it is worth reflecting that the Catholic Church is hardly alone among the world’s monotheisms in treating its womenfolk like dirt.

Since 1988, the Western Wall Plaza has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, itself a wing of the Israeli government.  In addition to its policy of physically (and inequitably) dividing the sexes, the foundation maintains a dress code within the plaza’s perimeter whereby women are forbidden from wearing the traditionally male prayer shawl known as a “talit.”

As reported in the New York Times this week, a group that calls itself “Women of the Wall” is seeking to ensure that this is no longer so.

Last Monday, ten members of this renegade group were detained by Israeli police after praying at the Wall decked in the aforementioned illicit garb, as the organization has done regularly since its formation in 1988.

The battle for gender equality is decidedly uphill.  In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to prohibit women from enjoying the praying privileges extended to men.

The court’s rationale, interestingly enough, was one of keeping the peace.  In past incidents, “Women of the Wall” representatives were met with physical intimidation and howls of protest from ultra-Orthodox men who were praying nearby.  Suppressing women’s dress, the argument goes, would prevent such outbursts in the future.

You heard right:  The high court of the Middle East’s only stable democracy ruled that the unregulated presence of women at the Western Wall was a provocation and, in effect, an infringement of the men’s right to not have to pray alongside women.

Indeed, this line of reasoning is perfectly consistent with the traditions of Orthodox Judaism.  Most Orthodox synagogues—in Israel, the United States and everywhere else—contain some form of mechitza, or division, to separate the sexes during services.  Some mechitzot place women in the back of the sanctuary while others simply split the room into left and right halves, but the principle is the same:  Men cannot be made to catch women’s cooties.

One is reminded, for instance, of the way various organized religions attempt to frame themselves as the oppressed party whenever the threat of gay equality pops up.  This week, when the Illinois State Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage, it included the proviso that, should the bill be endorsed by the State Legislature and become law, Illinois houses of worship would retain the right to deny such unions under their roofs.

Most pro-gay marriage bills have included such a provision as a way to neutralize a clash with clergy who view gay equality as an infringement upon their right to practice and preach gay inequality.

Natan Sharansky, a government official tasked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to resolve the “Women of the Wall” conundrum, expressed genuine ambivalence as to which side—the women or the Orthodox men—presents the stronger argument.  Sharansky implored that, in any case, “We do have to find a solution in which nobody will feel discriminated against.”

In my own experience, I have found the most effective way to ensure nobody feels discriminated against is not to discriminate against anybody.  The ultra-Orthodox community can rationalize from here to kingdom come, but prohibiting women from wearing prayer shawls that are freely worn by men is discrimination in its very design.

If avoiding discrimination is truly the goal in this case—“if” is indeed the key word—there is only one possible resolution, and that is for the Israeli Supreme Court to reverse its 2003 decision and acknowledge that a democratic state cannot favor one gender over the other so far as the law is concerned.

Would such an eventuality annoy the ultra-Orthodox powers that be, leaving them feeling their way of life is being trampled?  I suppose it would.  In 1960, the white folks in Greensboro, North Carolina could not have been terribly pleased to learn they would henceforth need to share Woolworth’s lunch counter with patrons who were black.

In a free society, some things are more important than tradition.

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