- Women of the Wall: Navigating Religion in Sacred Sites by Yuval Jobani and Nahshon Perez
Women of the Wall: Navigating Religion in Sacred Sites
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxiii + 246 pp.
Religious actors can present unique challenges to modern states. On what basis can a democratically elected government adjudicate conflicts amongst and with its religious citizenry, particularly when issues of public space are involved? In Women of the Wall: Navigating Religion in Sacred Sites, Yuval Jobani and Nahshon Perez examine this challenge through an intensive case study of the decades-long conflict between a group known as the Women of the Wall and the State of Israel.
The core conflict is over what constitutes acceptable religious practices by women in the prayer plaza at the Western Wall, sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem. A remnant of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, the Wall is widely viewed within Jewish tradition as Judaism's holiest site. For centuries, the Western Wall was the closest place to where the Temple had stood that Jews could come to pray. Between 1948 and 1967, when the Old City was under the control of Jordan, the Wall was inaccessible to Jews. After the Six-Day War returned the Old City to Jewish control, Jews flocked from near and far to pray at the Wall, largely deferring to the traditional Orthodox custom of separating men and women in the prayer area by means of a divider (mehitzah). Because of its irreducible importance to Jewish people across a wide spectrum of Jewish belief and practice, the authors classify it as a "thick site," one that is simultaneously irreplaceable and charged with multiple, incompatible, significant meanings (p. 2).
The clash between Women of the Wall and the State of Israel began in 1988. Amid the first international conference of Jewish feminists in Jerusalem, a group of women decided to "pray, every Rosh Chodesh (the day of the New Moon) and during special events, in the women's section . . . at the Western Wall, wearing prayer shawls traditionally worn by men . . . and reading aloud from the Torah" (p. 40). While adhering to the custom of praying in the separated women's area, the women viewed the Wall a vital place to enact and celebrate the egalitarian interpretations of traditional Jewish observance then emerging out of rigorous text study by female and male feminist [End Page 216] Jewish scholars. Yet to some who regularly prayed at the Western Wall, whose leaders had been given increasing authority by the State over religious decorum there, these practices were and remain an affront. In the middle of their prayers, the Women of the Wall encountered "violent opposition from other worshippers" and "were removed from the premises by the police for disturbing public order" (ibid.). Less than a year later, WOW submitted the first of its three petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court to gain the right to pray in the women's section of the Wall in accord with their egalitarian understandings.
In this richly detailed, concise study, the authors trace the development of WOW, the varied, contradictory responses of the courts to their legal claims, and how public officials and law enforcement responded to the women's recurrent presence, at times in contradiction to court decisions. They also describe the internal conflicts that arose within WOW as compromises proffered by the courts and the State were considered and rejected or accepted.
The authors then examine three leading models of religion-state relations adopted by democratic states—the dominant culture view (DCV), evenhandedness, and privatization—and evaluate the usefulness of each as a potential strategy to resolve this dispute. In the DCV approach, states claim that sufficient consensus exists with their society to justify the provision of state support to the majority's choices, as long as they do not infringe upon the "core liberties and rights" of minority populations (p. 56). The authors deem the resulting state-sanctioned inequality to be an inherent weakness of the DCV model, one that makes it untenable when a conflict over a thick site is involved, as...