A pluralistic prayer service held at the Western Wall Thursday deteriorated into scuffles between ultra-Orthodox protesters and progressive worshipers.
Hundreds of Reform and Conservative Israelis gathered in the Western Wall Plaza — adjacent to but outside the Orthodox-run, gender-segregated prayer area — to hold a mixed prayer service arranged in protest at a series of setbacks that have been stalling a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall, despite a compromise deal reached in January.
The activists, who gathered for the Mincha, or afternoon, prayer service, were specifically protesting the placing of a mehitza, a separation dividing men’s and women’s prayer, in the egalitarian prayer area at the nearby Robinson’s Arch earlier this week during a prayer service led by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem and formerly a chief rabbi of Israel.
Video footage streamed online Thursday afternoon showed dozens of ultra-Orthodox men counter-protesting the egalitarian service by throwing bottles, singing loudly, and shouting, “You are not Jews,” to drown out the Reform and Conservative worshipers.
Police at the scene worked to separate the groups, though Reform leader Rabbi Gilad Kariv told Army Radio the Orthodox protesters were “cursing and shoving, and police haven’t lifted a finger.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Orthodox protesters of seeking to divide the Jewish people.
“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,” he said in an English-language statement. “We all must unequivocally reject these inappropriate words and deeds, which run counter to the basic spirit of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu said that his government was continuing to “work toward a solution that will allow all Jews to feel at home at the Western Wall.”
Meanwhile, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz issued a statement slamming the Reform and Conservative movements for holding a service that “tramples the sanctity of the Wall.
“With every passing day, the Western Wall becomes an increasingly daunting and distant place for the people of Israel and the whole world,” he said.
During his prayer protest Monday at the West Wall, Amar, the Jerusalem chief rabbi, highlighted the intense opposition to the non-Orthodox prayer area among the ultra-Orthodox community. Speaking after the service, Amar said a mixed-gender plaza constituted an “unforgivable wrong” that would “weaken Jerusalem” and the Jewish people.
The Western Wall compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision that reflected the work of years of negotiations, calls for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in an area 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.
The plan was heralded as a symbol of Jewish unity throughout much of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement — a headline that splashed across international media — the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition, and its implementation has been stymied for the past months.
Prior to Thursday’s protest service, Rabbi Pamela Frydman, chair of the Executive Committee of Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel, and Rabbi Stanley Davids, past chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, condemned what they called the “desecration of the Kotel prayer space at Robinson’s Arch” by Amar “for demonstrating that there is no room for egalitarian worship at the Kotel.”
“We call upon Prime Minister Netanyahu and all responsible members of the coalition and opposition in the Knesset to condemn Rabbi Amar for desecrating the holy site by using his presence to instill hatred toward other Jews and to prevent Rabbi Amar from continuing such desecration,” they wrote in a statement. “We support the right of all Jews to pray, each in their way, according to their custom and understanding.”
Raoul Wootliff and JTA contributed to this report.