Israel’s ‘Soviet’ prayer police

Last month, Israeli police arrested worshippers at the entrance to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The worshippers had committed a heinous crime: they had tried to pass through the gates leading from the plaza to the Wall itself wearing tallitot.

I should explain that they were all women. Their declared object was to join that section of female worshippers identified with the "Women of the Wall," an organisation that has for the past two-and-a-half decades held or attempted to hold monthly Rosh Chodesh services in the women's section.

Since last summer, women daring to participate in these services have been arrested practically every month, either for wearing tallitot or tefillin or, less explicitly, for "disturbing public order".

The arrests have generally not been followed by the laying of criminal charges. But, last October, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women at the Wall (who was fined in 2010 simply for holding a Sefer Torah at the Wall) was arrested for the crime of singing at the Wall.

She was strip-searched, held overnight in police custody, and then issued with a restraining order banning her from visiting the Wall for 30 days.

According to Hoffman, the Jerusalem constabulary "checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 metres; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief."

The constabulary has not contradicted this account, nor denied rumours that women are now searched at the entrance to the Wall, to make sure that they are not carrying tallitot or tefillin. This is of course precisely the sort of behaviour that one associates with the worst excesses of the Soviet era when Jewish visitors to the USSR were routinely searched for ritual objects, which were often confiscated.

Just in case any of you suppose, having read thus far, that I am therefore minded to side wholly with the Women of the Wall and wholly against the Jerusalem constabulary, let me assure you that I am not. Before I explain why, let me draw your attention to another arrest, not at the Wall itself but on the Temple Mount a couple of hundred or so yards away.

This arrest took place on January 1. On that day a man - Moshe Feiglin - was alleged to have attempted to engage in prayer on the Mount. Had he been a Muslim, or a Christian (or even, perchance, a heathen) the likelihood is that nothing untoward would have happened. But Feiglin is a Jew. He was followed on to the Temple Mount by an undercover security officer. And for the crime of attempting to engage in prayer (he was apparently spotted bowing his head) this Jew - not for the first time – was arrested. And this too, of course, recalls precisely the sort of behaviour that one associates with the worst excesses of the Soviet era when Jews in the USSR were routinely arrested simply and solely for the crime of engaging in Jewish religious worship.

Feiglin is a Likud activist. Some call him an extremist. His reported views on Hitler and Nazism do indeed leave me cold and, some years ago, he was banned from entering the UK. But even extremists have rights. His foray on to the Temple Mount was not his first and I daresay will not be his last. At the beginning of December, he was reported to have led a full prayer service on the Mount, without incident. Good for him.

The Women of the Wall are also extremists. They have a gender agenda, not all of which I (an Orthodox Jew) find palatable. But, again, even extremists have rights. I cannot in all conscience understand why wearing a prayer-shawl should amount to a crime. If Anat Hoffman and her colleagues wish to don tallitot and tefillin, then that is surely their business.

The arrest of Feiglin for praying and of Hoffman for wearing were gross violations of freedom of worship. Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find a solution for non-Orthodox women's groups wishing to pray peacefully at the Wall. He should also be asked to investigate the prohibition on Orthodox men wishing to pray peacefully on the Temple Mount.

Last updated: 10:45am, January 15 2013