The umbrella organization for British Jews criticized head of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for the “violent harassment of women praying at the Kotel.”
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, sent a harsh letter on Monday to WZO Chairman Yaakov Hagoel and to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors Chairman Michael Siegel.
“I want to express my serious concern about the distressing reports we have received regarding violent harassment of women praying at the Kotel during the Women of the Wall’s monthly service,” van der Zyl wrote.
“It is our understanding that those responsible for this harassment were brought to the event under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization, specifically the organization’s Department of Periphery and Diaspora Affairs and the Department of Resource Development and Community Relations.”
These two departments of the WZO are run by the two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties: Eretz Hakodesh and World Shas.
Women of the Wall are demanding that Hagoel takes responsibility and apologizes for the violence that ensued after the WZO bused in groups of haredi women to the Western Wall during their prayer service.
The young haredi women confronted the Women of the Wall and the situation turned violent – with both sides claiming the other side incited the violence.
Around 150 members of the Women of the Wall movement, who carried out a morning prayer service at the Western Wall on Monday, were confronted by both police and a large group of the haredi women.
Women of the Wall approached Hagoel, but claimed that he wouldn’t apologize for the incident.
Adding to the tensions was an ongoing internal disagreement within the WZO. Buses carrying hundreds of Orthodox women arrived at the Western Wall on Monday morning, for an event said to have been organized by two haredi WZO departments – World Shas and Eretz Hakodesh (the Holy Land) – to mark Independence Day.
However, it was designed to overshadow a prayer service on Sunday evening organized by the head of a third WZO department, Dr. Yizhar Hess, former director of the Israeli Conservative movement.
In a press release, Women of the Wall said “the events were held under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization and with the approval of the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency. Women of the Wall met with Hagoel and demanded an apology from the World Zionist Organization.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Hagoel refused to take responsibility for the violent incident that took place at the Western Wall against the Women of the Wall.”
Van der Zyl said, “The Kotel is a holy place for Jews of all denominations and its sanctity must be respected, along with the right of all Jews to pray there. I am extremely distressed by the notion that the World Zionist Organization, a national institution with such an illustrious history, would have engaged in an action which is so clearly antithetical to its values.”
She asked to note that the organization’s Jerusalem Program includes the following point in its description of the foundations of Zionism: “Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.” Van der Zyl stressed that “if that mutual respect is instead replaced by Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, then we are undone.”
She added, “I would respectfully ask for an explanation regarding this extremely disturbing incident, as well as your absolute assurance that the World Zionist Organization will not engage in any such similar behavior in the future.”
Other Jewish organizations have reached out to Hagoel in order to create dialogue regarding the conflict, such as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and others. Board members of the WZO, mainly from the progressive side of the spectrum, are trying to take advantage of this situation and claim that Hagoel isn’t fit to serve as chairman of both of these organizations.
Hagoel sent a letter to the board of governors on Sunday evening relating to the incident.
“Several of you have inquired as to the events that took place last Monday at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh (the new month),” Hagoel wrote, “We want to be sure to share our sentiments directly with you.
“We condemn the behavior displayed in the strongest possible terms. Such conduct is against the foundational values of the Jewish Agency and runs completely against every aspect of our ethos and ethics.”
The WZO said on Sunday that it “did not fund buses or any other aspect of the prayer service of young haredi Orthodox girls at the Kotel. There were a few flags of the WZO at the service and we approved the cooperation with these organizations – but there was no funding involved. We are looking into the claims of both sides of violence.”