Violent skirmishes broke out Wednesday morning at the Western Wall as Reform, Conservative and Women of the Wall leaders and activists brought 14 Torah scrolls into the site in defiance of administrative regulations.
Security guards from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation tried to forcibly prevent the protest prayer group of some 200 people from entering the main site with the Torah scrolls, but they were unable to hold back the momentum of the crowd.
Orderlies of the foundation then fought physically and aggressively to prevent them from bringing the Torah scrolls into the women’s section.
The orderlies manhandled the progressive Jewish leaders and activists bearing the scrolls and those protecting them, while haredi protesters grabbed hold of the scrolls and fought with the activists.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, was knocked to the ground by orderlies and protesters but was unharmed.
Eventually, several Torah scrolls made it into the women’s section for the Women of the Wall’s monthly service, while a pluralist prayer service was conducted in the upper plaza of the site.
The prayer rally was staged to protest the failure of the government to implement a government resolution approved in January to create a state-recognized pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall.
Following the events of Wednesday morning, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that was striking for its criticism of the progressive Jewish denominations and WoW for staging the event – criticism that has not been raised in public before.
“The unfortunate events that happened today at the Western Wall plaza do not contribute to advancing the agreed-upon solution for prayer arrangements at the site,” said the statement.
“The prime minister and the Knesset speaker emphasized yesterday in front of the non-Orthodox leaders that this is the time for dialogue and not friction. The one-sided violation of the status quo at the Western Wall harms the ongoing efforts to reach a solution.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to advance the Western Wall agreement are appreciated, but that the prime minister should direct his criticism to his haredi (ultra-Orthodox) coalition partners.
“The non-Orthodox denominations are the ones who have always expressed their agreement to the agreement and are the ones who have prevented the intensification of the struggle,” said Kariv.
“After a frustrating year of non-implementation of the agreement, an unprecedented wave of incitement against Reform Judaism and the shameful and discriminatory mikve law, it would be fitting for the government to stand by its commitments to the Jewish world,” he said, calling on Netanyahu to implement the resolution immediately.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, administrator of the Western Wall and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, blamed Women of the Wall for the incident, saying it had injured thousands of worshipers through its prayer service and, in so doing, had “disgraced Torah scrolls.”
He said that “due to deep reverence [for the Torah] and not wanting to harm the many Torah scrolls that were brought along,” he had instructed the orderlies at the site not to clash with the demonstrators.
However, this statement contradicts the forceful and violent behavior of the orderlies, caught on video, who tried to physically push those carrying Torah scrolls to the women’s section out of the area.
The orderlies, all young men, said they had been requested to come to the site specifically to deal with the scheduled prayer rally and demonstration.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, rejected accusations that the protest prayer rally was a provocation.
“No movement in the history of humanity has ever moved forward simply by quietly waiting,” Jacobs said. “The Jewish people love this place and have come here over millennia.
We are here as part of the Jewish people to assert that the Kotel is also ours, Judaism is also ours, the Jewish state is ours, and we come here out of love, strength and deep commitment that Israel will be a home for all Jews and that this sacred place of the Kotel will also be a symbol of that inclusiveness and that pluralism and that strength that comes from our Jewish diversity and Jewish commitment.”
The rabbi noted that the various movements and organizations of progressive and Diaspora Jewry were working, including through the Knesset and the courts, to achieve their aims, but that the rally was about being present on the ground, as well.
Regarding the skirmishes, Jacobs pointed out that it was the Orthodox protesters and not the progressive worshipers who had been the source of the violence.
“We came with dignity, but we were not met with dignity or respect, and that’s a real shame that there are people who can’t understand that we want a place here, but we don’t want the whole place,” he said.
Hess said “all civil rights protests” and activists are labeled provocateurs, but denied that the rally had been a provocation.
“We came here to demonstrate that we’re connected to the Kotel and to demonstrate that this place is sacred to all of us, and the fact that the Israeli government is not implementing what was agreed is disgraceful,” he said. “We’re here to say there is more than one way to be Jewish in Israel and at the Kotel, and if this resolution is not implemented, we are here to demand a third section at the Western Wall itself, with men and women praying together.”
Following the prayer rally, Rabinowitz said: “The heart is torn at the sight of Torah scrolls, holier than any other sacred thing, carried like protest banners.” He lamented the presence and support of the progressive Jewish leaders and activists alongside Women of the Wall.
“Today, my Jewish brothers, the Western Wall and the Jewish people are calling out ‘enough,’” Rabinowitz said. “Do you not see how Women of the Wall have drawn all of us into a dead end, along a path of zealotry, violence, demonstrations and civil war until the bitter end?” Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said Rabinowitz himself had helped negotiate the government resolution, and said his retreat from the deal due to subsequent haredi opposition made him unfit for his office.
“Women of the Wall and millions of its supporters in Israel and around the world are demanding an end to the discrimination against women and against the Reform and Conservative movements and to implement the Western Wall agreement.
This is the meaning of being a free people in our land,” she said.
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