The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, is the only remaining part of the Second Temple, center of much of Jewish life in antiquity, built in 516 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 73 CE. Located in Jerusalem, it is a spot of great meaning and importance to Jews around the world. Unfortunately, the wall and the plaza around it don’t belong to all Israelis or all Jews in Israel. It is controlled by a group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who, in accordance with Jewish law, mandate a separate section for men and women (guess which one is bigger?) and also restrict what women seeking to approach the wall are allowed to wear. Part of their rules are for modesty concerns; women must be covering their knees and elbows. But the religious restrictions don’t stop there. Women who wish to approach the wall wearing prayer shawls or carrying Torahs to read from are stopped from doing so. As the law states, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.”
A group called Women of the Wall has bravely been fighting against this law for the right to practice their Judaism at the wall as they wish for over two decades.
Recently, a court ruled in their favor, saying that women may wear prayer shawls and read from a Torah in the women’s section. On Friday, it was as if an occult hand had taken hold of a few of the normally peaceful members of the Haredi community, causing them to try to physically stop the Women of the Wall from exercising their newly-minted legal right to pray as they wished. When that didn’t work, they threw water bottles at the women and their supporters and seem to have spit on some young girls. Thankfully, several of the Haredi men have been arrested and are now in custody.
This disgusting behavior comes as no surprise to any reader of this site. Every religion has extremists that treat others terribly, and certain groups of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are known in particular for spitting on women. But the specific phenomenon I feel this illustrates is one I think atheists should take very seriously: the primary victims of the harms of religious groups are the members of those religious groups. The girls in Bnai Brak weren’t atheists being persecuted by religious extremists; they were a different group of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the same city. The majority of victims of Islamic theocracy in the Middle East are the Muslims living in those countries, wishing they didn’t live under control of the vicious Taliban or the dictatorial Ayatollah. Most of the harm of anti-gay or slut-shaming Christianity is inflicted on the Christians in the churches that preach such messages, who have to listen to how sinful and terrible they are from their pastors, preachers and parents. And in this case, the harm of the vicious Haredim who chose to illegally stop women from exercising their religious rights fell on women who wanted to practice their Judaism, who wanted to be proudly Jewish and religious, who wanted to wear traditional prayer garb, and who wanted to pray and read from their holy book.
It is blatantly and transparently true that secularists, atheists and nonbelievers suffer from the harms of religion. One must only look at the Bangladeshi atheists being harassed for their nonbelief to see that. But as atheists who criticize religion, I think it is one of our moral duties to direct a great deal of our empathy to the everyday religious people who are frightened, shamed, and threatened by their religious leaders, their religious compatriots, and others who use the beliefs they hold dear to harm them.
Good on the Women of the Wall, and I hope very much for their continued victories against the Israeli Religious Right.