War declared at the Kotel

Last week, the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) declared war on religious pluralism in Israel. Reeling with confidence that they have aborted the government’s plans for a pluralistic Kotel section, haredi leaders decided that the time was ripe to eradicate any non-ultra-Orthodox presence at the Kotel.

Last Tuesday, Shomo Amar the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem and a few dozen right ring religious activists pushed their way into the mixed prayer area at Robinson’s Arch with a police escort and set up a mehitza for a prayer protest against the Kotel plan.

In a complete about face, instead of denying that the southern wall is as holy as the northern section of the Kotel (the excuse used by religious leaders to hide any non-haredi prayers there), Amar acknowledged the holiness of the entire Western Wall and said that was his reasoning to stop the division of the wall into separate prayer spaces. He said that no power, including the government and the courts of Israel could compel that to happen. The first shot of the Kotel war was fired.

The response from the liberal movements in Israel and the Diaspora was a strong declaration that the Kotel is not the exclusive property of the haredim. The Masorti movement called Amar’s actions provocative and a deliberate sabotage of Israel’s relationship with world Jewry. They called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene.

The Masorti and Progressive movements decided to hold a joint mincha prayer service two days later (last Thursday) in the upper plaza to draw attention to the government’s stalling implementing the Kotel plan that was approved in January. The movements have indicated that if/when the Kotel deal is dead, they will demand that the Kotel be divided into three sections to include Egalitarian prayer. 

Over 300 people came to pray, including the youth groups of the two movements and were met with haredi protesters who came to disrupt the service with whistles, shouting ugly statements, throwing bottles at the worshipers, and any other items at their disposal. The protesters were sent by haredi rabbis who called on groups to come to the Kotel to defend it against the “reformers”.  At some point. The haredi protesters began pushing and shoving the worshipers while the police stood idly by.

There are many videos of the prayer service that clearly show that the police did not intervene to separate the groups or to stop the violence perpetrated by the haredi mob of mostly young men. The same type of men who came to the Kotel to prevent Women of the Wall from praying after the Sobel decision. There seem to be an endless supply of willing participants.

Yitzar Hess, the director of the Masorti movement in Israel told the Jerusalem Post that the prayer service was not provocative and that the group exercised their rights under Israeli law. He criticized the police for failing to separate the haredi protesters from the prayer group saying, “The haredi mob was able to yell, hit, and act like bullies.”

Rabbi Andy Sacks, the director of the Israeli Rabbinical Assembly, decried the sinat hinam (baseless hatred) of the haredi mob who said the worshippers were not Jews and should go back to America as well as many other slurs. He compared this to the time of the destruction.

I very sadly agree with him. The haredim have declared war on anyone who says there are other ways to be Jewish. Are they so afraid that they will lose ranks if people are exposed to something other than their narrow word-view?

I attended the Masorti Women’s League’s day of study in Jerusalem last week and studied with women from across the religious spectrum. One of the lectures I attended discussed the changes occurring in haredi society as more women are becoming educated and going out in the working world. The haredi leadership is so afraid of losing the total control they have over their constituents that they will stoop to sinat hinam and they are making the Kotel their battleground. Let us hope that their actions will not bring about a third destruction.