Tensions ran high at the Western Wall on Monday morning as thousands of haredi schoolgirls and some 200 haredi boys arrived at the site to protest against the Women of the Wall prayer-rights activist group and prevent them from praying next to the Wall.
The police estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 haredi high-school girls were present at the Wall, and the police presence itself was sizable, with approximately 250 officers at the scene to protect the Women of the Wall group.
The girls, whose transportation was arranged by the United Torah Judaism political party, arrived ahead of the Women of the Wall prayer group and entirely filled up the women’s section, preventing the WoW group from praying next to it.
The police had set up ahead of time a prayer area at the back of the plaza, close to the entrance to the Western Wall complex, cordoned off by barriers and a large police presence, and the Women of the Wall prayer group conducted its service in this area.
While the haredi girls remained in the women’s section of the Wall, the boys stood by the WoW prayer area in turns shouting insults and singing to drown out the voices of the service.
“Get out of here, Amalek,” was one of the slogans the boys shouted at the women’s prayer group, as well as the traditional rhythmic chants of “gevalt,” or “woe” in Yiddish, along with calls of “Nazis” directed at the police.
Although most of the haredi youth were smiling and joking as they protested, eggs and water balloons were thrown at the female worshipers on at least two occasions, and at times the atmosphere and tone of the haredi protestations became notably hostile and aggressive.
The police arrested two haredi demonstrators, a man and a woman, for disturbing the public order.
The office of Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yossi Doytsch of UTJ told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that Doytsch and other UTJ officials met with the police last week to inform them of the planned protest and their intentions to bring the haredi girls to the Western Wall in protest.
Police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Ruby said he would not comment on meetings with various elements but noted that the police “meet with both sides.” The decision to position the prayer area by the entrance to the complex was taken as events unfolded and was not preplanned, he said.
Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs expressed anger that the group had not been enabled to pray next to the Wall as it has been accustomed in recent years.
“We’re upset and frustrated,” Sachs told the Post. “We always cooperate with the police, but we feel like we’ve been betrayed by the police today because where we’ve been made to pray today is not a place of prayer, it’s the parking lot.”
The organization pointed out that there was sufficient space opposite the Western Wall but set back from the main prayer area, where its prayer area could have been set up, which it said would have been a more appropriate place for it to hold its service.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative Movement in Israel, said the police, by creating the prayer area for WoW so far away from the Western Wall, were in contempt of a recent ruling of the Jerusalem District Court to allow the group to pray at the site in accordance with its customs.
“Without doubt, the police need to think hard about whether or not they want to be taken to court over their incapability of protecting freedom of religious worship at the Western Wall,” said Hess. “If not, they need to do what they know how to and provide an appropriate, respectable and accessible prayer area, so that the Women of the Wall can pray according to their customs as they have done for the last 25 years.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, accused the police of contravening the Jerusalem court ruling.
“[The police] have given a reward to a small group of haredi provocateurs and rabbis who deal in spreading baseless hatred,” said Kariv. “The Israel Police force forgot that its job is to defend freedom of religion and prayer at the Western Wall and not to imprison those who are praying behind a police line. We demand from the cabinet secretary and the ministers relevant to this issue to intervene. The continuation of the current behavior will stymie all efforts for a compromise and lead to [further] litigation on the issue of the Western Wall.”
Kariv also said that if the government fails to ensure that the Women of the Wall is able to pray by the Western Wall, the Reform Movement would not be amenable to any form of compromise on the issue.
Following the prayer service, Doytsch issued a statement to the media saying “the Western Wall is a place that unites and binds all of the Jewish people. It is a great shame that on the New Month of Av a group of strange women come to the Western Wall in order to divide and cause arguments within the people.”
Yitzhak Pindrus of UTJ, another deputy mayor and member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council, also criticized the Women of the Wall saying that “in these days, when the Jewish people are mourning the destruction of the Temple, we will not allow the desecration of the last remnants of the Western Wall.”
Pindrus continued, saying “baseless hatred caused the greatest destruction to befall our people, and we will not let a small group of agitators continue to polarize with provocations and baseless hatred.”
A plan to enlarge the Western Wall Plaza and create an egalitarian prayer area is being drawn up by chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, but the proposals are yet to be formalized and have been stalled for several months.