Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews have gathered at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to protest against a Jewish women’s congregation holding monthly prayers there in a long-running campaign for gender equality at the site, with minor scuffles and one person’s arrest.
For decades the Women of the Wall have equated worship at the Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Religious institutions in Israel are dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who oppose any changes to the site, with men and women praying in separate areas.
Just before Friday prayers, clashes erupted between Haredi protesters and the police before the Women of the Wall reached the holy site. Police prepared for possible violence at the Western Wall after opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called for protests.
The leader of the Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffmann, was at one point removed from the Western Wall plaza after trying to bring a small scroll of Torah. At least one was arrested during the brawls between activists and protesters, but the Western Wall rabbi said more intense violence was successfully averted.
The row has intensified since the new government’s swearing-in in June led Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties to join the opposition. The newly elected legislator who is also a Reform rabbi used his parliamentary immunity to introduce Torah scrolls into the women’s section in defiance of rules imposed by ultra-Orthodox officials at the site.
Police erected metal barricades and deployed in large numbers to repel the mostly male protesters, who whistled and sometimes rushed forward only to be pushed back. The women carried the empty cloaks used to cover the Torah scrolls in protest of the ban on bringing manuscripts themselves into the women’s section.
The Women of the Wall group performs prayers at the Western Wall in each Rosh Hodesh area, which marks the beginning of the Hebrew month. Hard-line politicians have long opposed the group’s activities – such as women praying using Torah scrolls – and their prayers are regularly interrupted by harassment and protests.
Hoffman, the group’s founder, said they “fight for equality, religious pluralism, and justice.”
“We cannot read from the Torah in the women’s section in 2021,” she said. “Why not? Why the hell not?”
Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right member of parliament who often appears provocatively at the Jerusalem protests, approached the barricades with his entourage and argued with one of the women who shouted: “Don’t hurt the Western Wall.” He left minutes later, to which women’s supporters replied, “Ben Gvir, go home!”
Haredi leaders, including Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, have called for protests. In a tweet posted by Netanyahu on Friday, Deri called on his supporters to come out “so that heaven does not prevent this holy place from being desecrated.”
Gilad Karev, a reformist rabbi and newly elected member of parliament from the centre-left Labor Party, had planned to bring a Torah file to the site for women to use, but canceled his visit at the request of President Isaac Herzog, who sought to prevent conflict at the site.
Karev told Army Radio early Friday morning that the decision was not easy. “Women of the Wall are subjected to violence in every Rosh Hodesh, while elements that receive support from Shas and religious Zionism regularly interfere with the egalitarian prayer.” Karev said he would work hard to revive the delayed plan to expand the Western Wall’s equality section.
After Karev’s announcement, ultra-Orthodox MKs also backed away from their earlier call to ban prayers, and also skipped the morning’s events.
Netanyahu halted plans for equal prayers on the Wall in 2017 under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties allied with him politically.
This move infuriated adherents of the more liberal strains of Judaism to which most North American Jews adhere. The dispute has been a major point of friction between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, in Israel and the United States.
In August, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Times of Israel that reviving the agreement is on the government’s agenda and enjoys broad support in the coalition, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Shay, Friday, renewed his belief in the need to bring the plan back to the fore. “Today’s events near the Western Wall have reinforced my belief that we must expedite the renewal of the settlement plan at the Western Wall,” Shai wrote on Twitter. The minister said he agreed to Herzog’s request not to attend, “in order not to fan the flames, but the only way forward is to renew the settlement agreement … equality for all. That is the only way.”
The original plan included three main provisions: a common entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and an equal prayer space. A new permanent pavilion significantly expands the existing humble prayer platform, which has served as the site of pluralistic prayer since 2000; And perhaps most controversially, a joint council comprising representatives of liberal Jewish currents and government officials would be responsible for overseeing the site.
The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in Davidson Archaeological Park, within an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is far from the current prevailing Orthodox prayer hall, and is separated from it by the ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.
In Israel, orthodox rabbis tightly control Jewish practices including weddings, divorces, and burials, and see them as their responsibility to preserve traditions that have endured centuries of persecution and assimilation. They consistently resist calls for reform from liberals, often viewing them as second-class Jews who draw women and members of the LGBTQ community and are overly accepting of converts and interfaith marriages.