A few days ago, a group of Jewish women gathered to pray at the most sacred place in Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall surrounds the ancient Temple Mount, where Jewish tradition says God gathered the dust to make Adam, where Abraham bound his son Isaac, where two Jewish temples stood for hundreds of years, where the Divine Presence rests. The women were surrounded by other Jews, who tried to prevent them from reaching the Wall, who cursed them, and threw water and chairs and stones at them. Three of these ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters were arrested.
Last month the praying women themselves had been arrested. Their offense? They had not been praying the right way. The Women of the Wall are non-Orthodox Jews who wear prayer shawls that Orthodox Jews believe should only be worn by men. Until last month, Israeli police prevented women in these garments from praying at the Wailing Wall, because Israel enshrines Orthodox religious practices into state laws. Over the past few years, Jewish women have been arrested and put in jail for wearing a tallit, the prayer shawl, under their clothes, for holding a Torah scroll, and for praying out loud, all activities which the Orthodox believe should be reserved for men.
On April 11, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the violent Orthodox protesters, not the praying women, were the ones causing a disturbance, and that the women should be allowed to pray as they wish.
The discrimination against women in Israel goes much deeper than disputes at the Wailing Wall. On bus lines serving areas where Orthodox live, women are forced to sit at the back. Recently some women have protested this discrimination, bringing references to the actions of Rosa Parks over 50 years ago. Israeli authorities have reacted in ways reminiscent of the reluctance of American leaders to challenge segregation: in 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were illegal, but allowed them to continue to operate.
These arguments among Jews about how to be Jewish are common to other religions. Sunni and Shia Muslims have disagreed about the nature of Islam since the prophet Muhammed died in 632 and a dispute developed over his successor. Sunni and Shia continue today to kill each other in the Middle East. The split among Christians during the Reformation in 1500s led to a century of violent conflict across central Europe, during which Christians killed other Christians over religious differences. When the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church instituted reforms in ritual practices in the 17th century, many Russians refused to allow any changes. The so-called Old Believers were then persecuted by the dominant Orthodox clergy and by the Russian state. Old Believers use two fingers to make the sign of the cross, while the official Russian Orthodox Church uses three fingers.
Violence and persecution within religious faiths occurs when state power takes one side. The French Catholic monarchy organized the massacre of French Protestants, called Huguenots, in 1572, killing at least 10,000, and probably many more. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was Sunni, and although a minority among the population, persecuted and murdered members of the Shia majority.
The religious disagreements in Israel are not violent. The Israeli government has allowed the Orthodox minority, estimated to be only about 10% of the population, to control significant elements of national life, notably marriage and divorce. There is considerable controversy in Israel about the outsized power of this fundamentalist religious minority, who avoid military service and receive state support for men to study religion all their lives.
Americans typically know little about the nature of the Israeli state that we support so generously. Would Americans so willingly support a state that discriminates against women? Or that makes rules about how one must pray?
In fact, American support for Israel is most powerful among the most fundamentalist Christians. A 2004 poll asked Americans “Should the U.S. support Israel over the Palestinians?” Although more Americans disagreed with that question than agreed, among evangelical Protestants the split in favor of supporting Israel was over 2 to 1.
All too frequently, religious fundamentalists of various faiths demand that everyone must follow their rules. The controversy across our states about marriage equality is a home-grown example. Citing their interpretation of the Bible, American fundamentalists want our government to enshrine their views of homosexuality into secular law.
Everyone should have the right to determine their own religious preference and beliefs. Nobody should have the right to demand, “Pray like I do.”
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 14, 2013