The head of the Conservative Movement in Israel filed a complaint with police after receiving death threats from ultra-Orthodox men at the Western Wall.
Yizhar Hess was at the Wall Sunday to support Women of the Wall, a group that holds monthly services in which women read from Torah scrolls at the holy site, when he was heckled by a group of religious men.
And while the services are always controversial with the ultra-Orthodox community and often lead to protests, Hess said he had never before “experienced such violent discourse” as he did on Sunday.
In a video filmed by Hess’s friend, several boys and young men accost the group, and one openly says the Conservative leader should be “butchered.”
Prior to the start of the video, Hess said a young man in the group told him, “I’ll murder you. If I had a knife I’d stick it in you right here. If I had an axe you’d get it in the head. You’re a heretic, it’s permitted to kill you.”
He said another man supported the first. “He’s right. You must be killed. I don’t have the guts to do it, but it’s a mitzvah [religious edict]. And if he does it I’ll congratulate him.”
In the video Hess can be heard expressing his shock at the statements. “They should denounce you, a person who speaks of murder. Though shalt not kill is one of the commandments,” he says to the first man.
“I should be denounced? Look at those women,” the man responds. “You should be murdered. You should be butchered. Butchered. You can’t be reformed. You can’t even repent. You evil [man]. If I could I’d choke you to death right now.”
A child is then heard screaming repeatedly: “A Reform Western Wakk [only] in Tel Aviv!”
Police said Tuesday an investigation was underway.
Hess confirmed that he had been brought in to testify and that he had been informed that the man who threatened him in the video had been detained and questioned.
The issue of non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall has long been a hot button issue, as has the government’s long-delayed promise to open an official egalitarian prayer space at the site.
The original decision to build the pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016, when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, it provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area at the site of a currently existing temporary one. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance to the area to be shared with the Orthodox gender-segregated prayer plaza, and the establishment of a board of pluralistic Jewry to oversee the mixed-gender area.
But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu, facing intense ultra-Orthodox pressure, froze the compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.
But bureaucratic hurdles and political wrangling have so far prevented the pavilion from being opened. The delay has contributed to a crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, as non-Orthodox Jews have increasingly expressed their exasperation with the Orthodox monopoly on aspects of Judaism such as conversion.
In October Netanyahu told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America that the new “refurbished” platform would soon be completed. But progressive leaders reacted with skepticism.
“We have a long and complicated history with Netanyahu’s promises in his speeches at GA conferences over the years,” Hess said at the time.
“It seems that in front of an audience comprised mainly of North American Jewish representatives, the prime minister feels comfortable promising that very soon Israel will become paradise for Conservative and Reform Jews. In the meantime, we haven’t seen the promises being translated into reality,” Hess said, adding that he is nonetheless “optimistic” about the completion of the Western Wall egalitarian section.
Netanyahu largely dismissed concerns over the Western Wall prayer area and other contentious matters, such as conversion, as issues that can easily be “overcome,” saying the biggest problem facing world Jewry today was the loss of Jewish identity, and that the development of Jewish consciousness and pride in the minds of young Jews was the Diaspora’s most important mission.
The prime minister also declared Israel is welcoming to Jews of all denominations.
The head of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, slammed the speech as “scandalous” and accused Netanyahu of failing to acknowledge his part in creating the crisis with Diaspora Jewry.
“As of now, all of his promises to promote respectful treatment of all Jewish sects have remained on paper, while ministers and coalition members, also from his party, continue to coarsely disparage Reform Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora,” Kariv said in a statement.