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At Board of Governors session, members demand Jewish Agency act on Western Wall

Head of New Jersey Federation, Reform leader, and others call for the organization to work with government to improve security after zealots overran egalitarian section

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A view of the egalitarian plaza, often referred to as 'Robinson's Arch,' at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)
A view of the egalitarian plaza, often referred to as 'Robinson's Arch,' at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)

Members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors demanded the organization work to address the situation at the Western Wall on Monday, as anger continued to smolder after religious zealots overran several bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the holy site’s egalitarian section last month.

“Several of us made it clear that there is an expectation for enhanced, immediate dialogue for the safety of Jews coming to pray at Judaism’s holiest site with the government of Israel and Israeli security authorities. This is absolutely necessary for Jewish safety and security. It is non-negotiable,” Dov Ben-Shimon, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, told The Times of Israel.

“We want to work with our partners in the Israeli government and the Israeli security forces to make sure that every Jew feels safe when he or she comes to pray at Judaism’s holiest site,” he said.

On June 30, dozens of mostly ultra-Orthodox extremists entered the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, also known as Robinson’s Arch or Ezrat Yisrael, in order to disrupt several bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies being held there by American families at the time. Police officers were present at the scene, but largely refrained from intervening, allowing the at-times violent protesters to cause mayhem.

The event, which was widely documented, caused comparatively few waves domestically, but prompted a major outcry from international and American Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency. The US Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt said the extremists’ actions would have been called antisemitic had they taken place in any other country.

In the wake of the incident, some have called for modest efforts to prevent similar violent protests in the future while others have called for the implementation of the so-called Western Wall compromise, a long-frozen deal that was negotiated in large part by the Jewish Agency and its then-chairman Natan Sharansky that would give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism official representation in the management of the holy site.

“I have great faith and high expectations from the new leadership of the Jewish Agency. We are fully cognizant of the hard work and effort that the Agency’s leadership has shown in the past and is willing to show in the future to deepen the Jewish Agency’s commitment to tolerant and respectful nonviolent dialogue, especially as it relates to the Kotel,” Ben-Shimon said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.

Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. (Courtesy)

Ben-Shimon was joined in his demand by a number of other members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yizhar Hess, the vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization, supported the move, but stressed that this was Ben-Shimon’s initiative.

“I spoke about the experience of the boy or girl who studies for months for their bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall and then experiences this blow, this trauma. How will they feel about the State of Israel when they grow up?” Hess said.

Ben-Shimon made his remarks at a special session of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting, a gathering of the 120 members of the board from around the world, but mostly from the United States and Israel.

The session on Monday afternoon was initially scheduled to discuss a number of topics, but it was changed to focus solely on the Western Wall issue in light of the June 30 incident.

Ben-Shimon said he decided to speak out about the need for greater action at the Western Wall because his organization “has been one of the leading funders of pluralistic projects in the State of Israel, including the egalitarian section of the Western Wall.”

Though Ben-Shimon is a member of the Board of Governors due to his position in the federation, he is not a Jewish Agency official and said that he therefore could not speak about what plans, if any, the organization has to advance this issue with the Israeli government.

“They allowed me to speak [at the session], and I spoke passionately, but I can’t represent the committee. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell you what their next steps are,” he said.

Jewish Agency officials have said they plan to discuss this issue with the Israeli government. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has denounced the incident and said, “If we need to, we’ll talk to the police commissioner.”

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

However, as Lapid is serving as interim prime minister during a period just before elections, his ability to act forcefully on an issue as sensitive as the Western Wall is limited — though not necessarily nonexistent.

“My expectation is that the forces of decency in the Israeli government who believe in the unity of the Jewish people and honest, respectful dialogues between Jews will find a way to develop compromises, to work together for the good of the Jewish people, and first and foremost, to ensure the safety of every Jew who comes to pray in Jerusalem and at the Kotel,” Ben-Shimon said.

“That’s absolutely the highest priority. It has to be non-negotiable and it has to be the clearest first element of any dialogue between the government of Israel and the Jewish people. I’m confident that this Israeli government, like every Israeli government, understands how critically important it is to make sure that the Diaspora Jewish family feels safe from attack when they come for a bar or bat mitzvah celebration in our holiest place,” he said.

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