Two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the Western Wall would be open to all Jews, violence broke out at the holy site on Thursday as a group of Reform rabbis and worshipers sought to enter the plaza with Torah scrolls. The group was forcibly prevented from doing so by police and Western Wall security officials.
The group had been praying at the Robinson’s Arch site designated for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall, at a special service marking the recent ordination of the 100th reform rabbi in Israel.
Included in the group were rabbinical students, rabbis and senior figures in the Reform Movement from the US and Israel, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America; Rabbi David Stern, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and several other Reform leaders.
Following the end of their service, they sought to enter the main Western Wall plaza with their Torah scrolls but were forcibly prevented from doing so.
Regulations passed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the administrator of the site, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, in 2010 that were designed to prevent the Women of the Wall organization from using Torah scrolls at the site, prohibit anyone from bringing in a Torah from outside.
Only men and gender-separate prayer groups are permitted to use Torah scrolls held by the foundation.
Jacobs acknowledged that when the group was told it could not enter with the Torah scrolls they continued to press forward and physically “asserted” their way into the Western Wall plaza.
“We had to with strength, assert that we are allowed to be in that place. And we asserted our way into that space and there was a lot of resistance by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation guards,” Jacobs told The Jerusalem Post.
The rabbi was himself among those holding a Torah scroll with whom the police contended, and he said he was threatened with a can of pepper spray held inches from his face.
Eventually, the group succeeded in entering with its Torah scrolls and went to the upper plaza area to sing various songs, hymns and prayers.
Asked whether prior coordination with the government, Western Wall Heritage Foundation or other authorities could have mitigated the ugly scenes witnessed at the site, Jacobs said that not only has such cooperation not worked in the past but that prior notification to Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation had only created even stronger efforts to prevent them entering with Torah scrolls.
After they finished, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, was briefly detained for questioning by the police.
A spokesman for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation told the Post, however, that the prayer group had been “provocative” in its efforts to enter to the plaza with the Torah scrolls, and violently pushed its way into the site.
In a statement to the press, the foundation said the Reform group came “with the goal of causing a provocation by using Torah scrolls and through them to advance a media incident” while “violating” decisions of the state.
“When management of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation discerned that the group was breaking in with physical force and intended to flout the customs of the site, we acted with responsibility and discretion to prevent bloodshed and, unfortunately, the group entered the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls in contravention of the customs of the site and court rulings.
“This provocative act at the Western Wall, a place of unity, was a physically and verbally violent struggle between the groups who were at the site. We are saddened by this illegitimate behavior and violence and strongly condemn it.”
Jacobs said the incident expresses “very loudly and clearly that we’re not going away.” said Jacobs.
“We’re not going to wait for our rightful place to be protected.
Everyone has a place at the Kotel and should be respected.
“We negotiated for four years, there was a fair compromise that the Kotel would be a place for all of us, not some of us. We will not accept anything less than equality at the Western Wall, equality in marriage, conversion and funding. Today is just another step in a longer journey and millions of Jews walk forward with us.”