By ABE SELIG
Braving the capital's cold nighttime weather, some 300 people gathered at the Western Wall plaza on Sunday evening to light Hanukka candles, sing traditional songs and protest what they called the ongoing "haredization" of the holy site.
The demonstrators alleged that forced gender segregation and discrimination inside the public plaza had become commonplace, and that they were reclaiming the site for everyone to enjoy.
"It's tragic that the Kotel has ceased to belong to the people of Israel and now belongs to a group of the zealously Orthodox," Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Masorti movement's rabbinical assembly in Israel and one of the organizers of the protest, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday night.
Explaining that visitors to the site often feel badgered or intimidated if they arrive in mixed-gender groups, Rabbi Sacks said that even national functions traditionally held at the site were taking place there less and less often - a sad response, he said, to the prevailing atmosphere at the site.
"We've seen a reduction in ceremonies being held here for new immigrants to receive their ID cards, and we've seen a reduction in swearing-in ceremonies for the army," Sacks said. "Even the army choir can no longer perform here - because it includes singing women."
"It's really absurd," he added. "People who have no authority here are making all the decisions."
Sacks also pointed to signs calling for a certain area along the edge of the plaza to be reserved "for men only."
"They have no legal right to put those there," he said. "This has got to stop."
Rabbi Gil Nativ, a former member of the 71st Paratrooper's Battalion, who was among the soldiers who liberated the Western Wall during the Six Day War in 1967, told the Post that he was attending Sunday night's rally because he felt that the Kotel "needed to be liberated again."
"When we fought for this place in 1967, we did it for all of Israel, not just one group," Nativ said. "Recently, certain groups have tried to assert their authority over others, making them uncomfortable. What we did here tonight was try and show that the Kotel is for everyone, and that pluralism should prevail here."
The event, which was organized in part by the capital's pluralistic Yerushalmim movement and the New Israel Fund, was attended by a number of religious and secular Jerusalemites, along with others from across the country.
Itai, a tour guide from Jerusalem who said he brings groups to the Kotel on a near-daily basis, said he had seen a gradual change at the site over time.
"The norms that began in the actual prayer area, down there," Itai said, pointing to the men and women's sections facing the wall - "it's like they've slowly been moving back here, to the public plaza.
"I come here with groups all the time, and members of my groups are approached and told to stop holding hands, girls are told to stop singing.
"It's an overall feeling that that the Kotel - which is the only place that is holy to all of the Jewish people - is being taken over by the haredim, who make up eight percent of the country's population," Itai said.
"Therefore, this is a struggle for the future of this place."
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.