Leaders from four major international Jewish organizations politely demanded that Prime Minister Yair Lapid take “immediate actions” to address the situation at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section, after Orthodox protesters overran a number of Conservative prayer services there last week.
“We respectfully feel that immediate actions should be taken to — at the very least — ensure the safety, security, and well-being of all those who come to the entire Kotel area, as well as to make certain that all worshipers are accorded the same level of respect we would expect if this were our own families — because it is our own Jewish family!” wrote the heads of the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod.
Last Thursday, several dozen Orthodox men and boys entered the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, an area south of the main plaza also known as Robinson’s Arch, equipped with whistles and signs, as a number of families from the United States were holding hold bar mitzvah ceremonies for their children there. The youths attempted to disrupt the services, blowing the whistles, calling the worshipers “Nazis” and “animals,” and at one point ripping up a prayer book, whereupon one boy used a torn page to wipe his nose.
Lapid on Tuesday spoke out against the incident in response to a question from a journalist.
“I am against all violence at the Western Wall against people who want to pray as their faith allows them. This cannot continue,” Lapid said, speaking to reporters in Paris following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
In the letter, the heads of the four organizations said denunciations were not a sufficient response to this type of behavior.
“Words of support are not enough, and concrete actions should be taken so that Jews of all streams feel at home, safe and welcome at the Kotel and in Israel,” they wrote.
The letter was delivered to Lapid on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federations said.
The organizations warned that these types of incidents strain the already fraught ties between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.
“This is about the basic ‘derech eretz'” — a Hebrew term roughly meaning common courtesy — “of Israelis welcoming Jews from around the world who come to celebrate their most cherished [celebrations] in the Jewish state, follow all the established rules for such an event, engage in no provocation, demonstrate nothing but ‘ahavat Yisrael’ — love of Israel — and are nevertheless subjected to conduct that should embarrass every Jew of every level or style of Jewish practice. No effort to unite or strengthen the ties between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora can be remotely successful while such behavior is allowed to continue,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by Michael Siegal, the outgoing chair of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors; Ya’akov Hagoel, chair of the World Zionist Organization and acting head of the Jewish Agency; Mark Wilf, incoming chair of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors; Doron Almog, the incoming head of the Jewish Agency; Julie Platt, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America; Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America; Steven Lowy, chair of the world Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod; and Sam Grundwerg, chair of Keren Hayesod.
The letter was addressed to Lapid, but copies were also sent to Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, and Deputy Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana.
The world Jewish leaders separated this issue from that of the so-called Western Wall compromise, a deal negotiated in large part by the Jewish Agency that would see non-Orthodox streams of Judaism given representation in the management of the holy site.
“We understand that there are differences of opinion within the Knesset and even within your government about the Kotel agreement. We know well your support for this agreement. However, this is not about the Kotel agreement,” they wrote to Lapid.
The organization heads wrote that they “look forward to hearing what the government can do to immediately address this issue.”
“We are prepared to work with you in any way that we can to assist in this urgent matter,” they wrote.
Yizhar Hess, the former head of the Masorti Movement — Israel’s equivalent to the Conservative Movement — and the current vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization, reiterated the call for action, not words, in response to the violent protest at the egalitarian section.
“This letter is incredibly apt — very polite but also very aggressive. ‘Statements won’t help anymore,’ was written in the letter, and I cannot agree more,” said Hess, who did not sign the missive.
Hess called the Orthodox youths’ actions a “hate crime” and said that if they had occurred anywhere else in the world, it would be called antisemitism, echoing a similar remark made on Tuesday by Deborah Lipstadt, a world authority on antisemitism and the current US special envoy on antisemitism.
“These ugly actions hurt families who were celebrating bar and mitzvahs, desecrated the holiness of the Western Wall and at the same time undermined the State of Israel’s position as the national home of the Jewish people,” he said.
“I hope that the government of Israel, even as an interim government, knows to make the correct decisions so that such incidents do not repeat themselves,” Hess added.
Next week, the heads of these organization are due to gather in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governor’s meeting, during which time they are also slated to meet with top Israeli officials.