Tussles broke out at the Western Wall Wednesday morning, during the first of a series of events planned by liberal Jewish groups for the day in protest of the ongoing restrictions on non-Orthodox worship at the foot of Judaism’s holiest site.
Video footage appeared to show at least 100 people joining the march and prayer service. The Israeli Reform movement said in a press release that “dozens” of Torah scrolls were carried into the women’s section.
The prayer and protest came, as always, at the start of the new month on the Hebrew calendar, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged liberal Jewish movements to refrain from voicing protest over the enduring status quo on worship at the Western Wall.
Video on social media showed scuffles Wednesday as some ultra-Orthodox onlookers and Western Wall officials lunged for the Torah scrolls carried by the protesters and attempted to physically bar them from entering the prayer area.
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Police attempted to separate the groups, but did not interfere either with the pluralistic protest or with Western Wall staffers’ and ultra-Orthodox worshipers’ attempts to hinder them. Eyewitnesses said officers hovered close by, ready to intervene if the scuffles escalated.
Amid the shoving, each side railed at the other’s focus on the sacred scrolls.
“Are you crazy? That’s a Torah scroll!” one pluralistic marcher shouted at an ultra-Orthodox protester who attempted to grab a scroll and prevent its entry into the women’s section.
Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, a group campaigning for pluralistic prayer services at the holy site, was elated at her group’s success at holding its morning prayers at the Wall.
“I feel this day is Simhat Torah, a little late,” she told Israel Radio. Simhat Torah is a holiday that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. It fell on October 24 this year.
“For the first time in history,” Hoffman added, “a Torah scroll is in the women’s section. It’s a historic day. Every day, women should be allowed to read from the Torah if they’re interested. And at bat mitzvot. The time has come.”
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements also took part in the march.
“The Western Wall won’t be the same Wall after today,” vowed Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel. “For the first time, women and men, Reform and Conservative Jews, secular and Orthodox, demand their right to enter the Western Wall. Today we liberated the Western Wall from the control of ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t decide for the rest of the Jewish people how to pray… We won’t acquiesce any longer to discrimination, to incitement, or to the the Israeli government’s shameful surrender to a small and aggressive minority.”
He insisted: “If the Israeli government doesn’t implement the compromise framework, we, together with the world’s Jews, will return the Western Wall to the hands of the entire Jewish people.”
A day earlier, Netanyahu insisted that a solution that would satisfy non-Orthodox Jews was more likely to be achieved through quiet negotiations than vocal protests.
But pluralistic groups remain unconvinced. They are protesting the non-implementation of a compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision, calling for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in part of the Davidson Archaeological Park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.
In his comments to Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, which is currently convening in Israel, on Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it. The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution.”
“The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” the prime minister said, referring to two UNESCO resolutions that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Hoffman on Tuesday called on Netanyahu to implement the compromise, saying: “We anticipate that the sight of hundreds of Jews prevented from reaching the Western Wall will move the prime minister to action. He is a hair’s breadth away from a historic solution to the conflict at the Western Wall. It’s mind-boggling that Mr. Netanyahu, who decries any international attempt to delegitimize our historic ties to the Western Wall, stands between world Jewry and an equitable arrangement guaranteeing every Jew the right to pray freely.”
When it was approved in January, the compromise plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” throughout most of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition, which view the Western Wall plaza as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been on ice ever since. In March, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has reportedly said the Western Wall plan “is over.”
There was no immediate statement Wednesday from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, or from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who have fought against the compromise plan.