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Can Israel's ultra-Orthodox punish women for 'immodest dress code' at Western Wall?

Though Israel's Shas party has been forced to back away from its proposed dress code for the Western Wall, many Israelis are still outraged by the audacious proposition.
Jewish women pray at the women's section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on November 17, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — An Israeli woman showed up on Sunday at the Western Wall Plaza wearing only underwear and the word "Bibi" written on her thigh, in an apparent message to the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to protest a recent ultra-Orthodox bill that seeks to criminalize women for dressing immodestly.

A few other women approached the 35-year-old and other people shouted at her for an act of provocation. Police officers on scene escorted her out of the site and detaines her for questioning.

Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch expressed shock and sorrow over what he saw as a despicable act. He said, "The Western Wall is a holy site for every Jew. It needs to be kept out of any conflict and provocation."

The woman's protest was a reaction to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party's attempt the week prior to pass what was nicknamed the "sleeves law." The bill lays out rules of conduct forbidding the use of any musical instrument and implementing a strict dress code for the Western Wall Plaza. Violations of the new rules could mean six months in prison and a 10,000-shekel ($2,840) fine.

The bill raised a storm at the Knesset and beyond, adding to the already high tensions within the Israeli parliament over the judicial overhaul pushed by Netanyahu’s government. Large parts of Israeli society view the bill as yet another attempt by the Netanyahu government to erode the country’s democracy and impose religious rules over a nonreligious majority.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted, "This legislation means one thing: The Western Wall no longer belongs to everyone. The extremist government continues to tear the people of Israel apart. They will not decide for us who is more Jewish and who is less. If this legislation passes, Israel is no longer a free country. Instead of a symbol of unity, the Western Wall will become a symbol of the oppression of women, discrimination against secular people, the dissolution of our alliance with world Jewry."

It is not clear why Shas chair Aryeh Deri presented the bill at this moment, just days after a court ruled that he could not serve as interior minister. The bill evidently embarrassed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party internationally, locally and even among his own supporters. Most of Likud voters are secular and several Likud lawmakers protested the initiative. Even editor of the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon Hagai Segal warned that if the legislation is passed, he pledged to arrive to the Western Wall wearing a short-sleeve shirt and carrying a guitar. 

Netanyahu immediately halted the initiative and shared a video in which he declared that the status quo at the Western Wall, cherished by all the people of Israel, will remain unchanged. 

A senior official in the coalition confirmed to Al-Monitor that Netanyahu was quick to grasp the bill's threat to his standing in Israel and abroad. "This legislation initiative was taken up by the opponents of the judicial reform as proof that it is not innocent and that the current government intends to change the face of the State of Israel. As such, Netanyahu had to nip it in the bud."

The Western Wall has become for Israelis both a religious and a national symbol. Millions visit it every year. It hosts mass prayers and bar mitzvah celebrations. IDF soldiers swear allegiance in the plaza, among other state events. Netanyahu makes a point of visiting the site every election day and placing a note between its stones.

The place is considered an Orthodox prayer complex and therefore, as in Orthodox synagogues, there is separation between men and women. Those who come are asked to dress modestly and men are asked to cover their heads.

There is a long-running dispute with the Jewish progressive movement over mixed prayer at the site. In 2016, it seemed that the dispute had been resolved. Following petitions to the High Court and pressure by US Jewry, the government adopted the Western Wall Compromise on an expanded mixed-prayer space. However, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the government backed off the plan and canceled it in 2017. Since then, the struggle has not left the Israeli political agenda.

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