Religious war at Western Wall: Skirmish over egalitarian prayer service

"You're not Jews," haredi protestors shouted at the non-Orthodox worshipers.

Altercation between haredi and non-Orthodox worshipers at the Western Wall, June 16, 2016 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Altercation between haredi and non-Orthodox worshipers at the Western Wall, June 16, 2016
An egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall descended into a bad-tempered skirmish on Thursday, when haredi demonstrators sabotaged the event that was intended to underline the demand for a pluralistic prayer space at the site.
Some 200 to 300 people – activists from the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements, along with youth groups and students from a pre-military academy, gathered in the upper plaza of the Western Wall to conduct the afternoon prayer service.
They were greeted by an ultra-Orthodox crowd, which surrounded the egalitarian worshipers as they attempted to conduct their service.
The protesters blew on whistles and bellowed various insults at those praying, with the two groups eventually pushing and shoving each other in an undignified melee in front of the Jewish holy site.
Despite the ugly scene, no blows were exchanged during the event although the situation remained tense throughout.
“You aren’t Jews, you’re total non-Jews, you have no connection to the Western Wall,” shouted protesters at those praying.
Following the event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was still working on a solution to the crisis and criticized rhetorical attacks against progressive Jews.
“As I have said many times before, the unity of the Jewish people is a source of our strength and one of the values closest to my heart,” said Netanyahu. “As we continue to work toward a solution that will allow all Jews to feel at home at the Western Wall, there are those who would prefer to divide our people and even to say that other Jews are wicked or aren’t Jews at all. We all must unequivocally reject these inappropriate words and deeds, which run counter to the basic spirit of the State of Israel.”
Prayer was all but impossible on Thursday afternoon as the jeers and shouting of the demonstrators drowned out, for the most part, the prayers and song of the egalitarian group.
The proximate cause of the event was a gender-separate prayer service held by Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar on Wednesday at the current pluralist prayer space at the Robinson Arch area, located at the southern end of the Western Wall.
The egalitarian prayer service was also a warning shot across the bows of the government by the Reform and Conservative movements for stalling on the implementation of a cabinet decision in January to upgrade and formally recognize the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch.
Asked why he came to demonstrate, one haredi protester said, “I pray because I believe that God is my God.
They don’t believe and they don’t do what God say. I do fulfill what God commands.”
He said he was “pained” by the egalitarian prayer service, and that if the state recognized the rights of progressive Jews it would lead to greater “assimilation” in the country.
A student from the mixed religious-secular pre-military academy in Kibbutz Hanaton in the Western Galilee who came to participate in the prayer service said he was there to emphasize the necessity for equal prayer rights at the site.
“There is no intention here to offend the haredi community, but we want them to understand that Conservative and Reform Jews, and also modern-Orthodox Jews, have an equal right to pray here,” he said.
Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess told The Jerusalem Post that those who attended the prayer service had come in peace.
“We didn’t come to demonstrate, we came to pray, this is what we did and we are still in favor of the [government-approved] compromise solution at the Western Wall, but if doesn’t work we’re going back to square one to demand a third egalitarian section at the Western Wall itself,” he said.
Hess criticized the police for failing to oversee the event and for not separating the protesters from the prayer group, calling their absence “disturbing,” and saying that a “haredi mob was able to yell and hit and act like bullies.”
He denied that the prayer service was provocative, saying that the prayer group had exercised its right under Israeli law “and simply came to say that if the deal doesn’t work we’ll have no choice but to claim something that maybe we shouldn’t have relinquished in the beginning.”
Dov Kalmanovitz, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council who was present at the Western Wall, said that Orthodox traditions of gender-separate prayer should be preserved at the site, and called the event “an unacceptable provocation.”
He said he was also opposed to the plan to upgrade the egalitarian prayer section at Robinson’s Arch, and that “the entire Western Wall is holy and we need to have gender separation along its entire length.”
Kulanu MK Michael Oren emphasized the importance of Jewish unity.
“The violent confrontation between haredi and liberal Jews at the Kotel today underscores the importance of honoring the Robinson’s Arch compromise agreement,” he said. “Already approved by the government, the agreement will preserve Jewish unity and prevent a potential crisis with the United States.
Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. To uphold our state we must respect our pluralistic people.”