Jewish Agency demands boosted security at Western Wall after ‘despicable’ protest
Compromise resolution voted through unanimously, including with support from ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has previously backed protests against Women of the Wall
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
The Jewish Agency Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday condemning what it called a “despicable” protest at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section last month by Orthodox extremists and requiring the organization to act to address the security situation at the holy site.
The resolution called for the organization to discuss the matter with Israeli government officials, to garner Israeli public opinion about the issue, and to identify “actions that can be taken to ensure that all Jews are welcomed to Ezrat Yisrael (the egalitarian section), as they are all members of the Jewish people family.”
“The Jewish Agency will promptly develop, approve, and implement a detailed work plan for the above-mentioned actions,” the resolution read.
Last month, dozens of mostly ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, young men and boys entered the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, also known as Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson’s Arch, in order to disrupt a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies being held there by American families.
The demonstrators blew whistles to drown out the prayer services, called those present “Nazis,” “Christians,” and “animals,” and ripped up prayer books. Police officers were present at the scene but generally refrained from intervening, save for some cases of direct physical violence.
The incident prompted fierce condemnations from major American and international Jewish groups, despite it being largely ignored in Israel. The issue was hotly debated at this week’s Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, both in the halls between events and at a special session on Monday afternoon that dealt exclusively with the topic.
During that meeting, Dov Ben-Shimon, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, called on the Jewish Agency to take action on the matter.
“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,” Ben-Shimon told The Times of Israel on Monday.
Ben-Shimon hinted that the group might bring in private security guards to the egalitarian section to ensure the safety of worshippers if need be.
On Tuesday, at a plenary session, the Jewish Federations of North America proposed a resolution that would require the Jewish Agency to take action to “ensure the security” of people praying at the egalitarian section.
The resolution passed unanimously, including with the support of Orthodox and Haredi members, including Rabbi Pesach Lerner, of the hardline Eretz Hakodesh organization. This was particularly noteworthy as Lerner and his group have organized protests against the Women of the Wall, a feminist group that organizes monthly prayer services and female-led Torah readings at the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel.
“The Board of Governors unequivocally condemns the despicable disturbances of prayer and smachot (celebrations) at Ezrat Yisrael,” the resolution read.
“The Board of Governors wishes to urgently communicate its demand to the relevant government ministries that such disturbances must stop immediately, as well as The Jewish Agency’s view that those ministries are responsible to ensure the security of those using Ezrat Yisrael, and therefore in charge of taking all legal actions to prevent such disturbances,” it said.
This official policy resolution came after the heads of the Jewish Agency, as well as the World Zionist Organization, Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod, sent a letter to Prime Minsiter Yair Lapid last week condemning the violent protest at the Western Wall and demanding government action.
World Zionist Organization vice-chairman Yizhar Hess, a long-time advocate on behalf of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel, hailed the resolution and noted Lerner’s involvement in its passage.
“Rabbi Pesach Lerner listened closely to Rabbi Rick Jacobs [of the Union for Reform Judaism] and to Rabbi Steve Wernick [of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism], and I heard with my own ears him vote in favor of the resolution condemning the ‘despicable’ riot that disturbed egalitarian prayer at Ezrat Yisrael. This is an important achievement,” Hess said.
Lerner responded to Hess, not denying that he supported the resolution but noting that he worked to soften it, specifically to remove a call for the so-called Western Wall compromise to be implemented. That long-frozen deal, which was negotiated in large part by the Jewish Agency and its then-leader Natan Sharansky, would give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism official representation in the management of the Western Wall, something they do not have today, and grant official status to the egalitarian section.
“You know well that because of our demand the resolution does not include a call for the implementation of the Western Wall compromise, despite this being your initial demand,” Lerner wrote in a tweet to Hess.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, confirmed that this was left out of the resolution in order to ensure that it would pass unanimously.
“We could have passed a stronger resolution, but this was a moment for unity,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel, adding that the Jewish Agency’s official policy is still in support of the Western Wall compromise, regardless of the fact that it was not included in this resolution.
“The Jewish Agency is committed to the Kotel compromise. That remains in effect. [Lerner] can claim whatever he wants. This resolution dealt only with security at the Western Wall,” Jacobs said.
“There is no support among the board of governors for Lerner’s point of view,” he added.
Jacobs described the resolution as a compromise with a limited scope, unable to address the fundamental issues at play, and stressed the need for the full implementation of the Western Wall compromise, as well as for educational programs for Haredi Jews about pluralism in order to prevent similar events in the future.
“We Reform Jews are demonized, and when you demonize people, you make them vulnerable to attack,” Jacobs said.
“What happened was not a few bad apples or extremists. They were extremists, but they’ve just internalized some of the horrible things said by Haredi leaders, who have said Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers,” he said.
The far-right religious Liba Center group condemned the resolution, as well as Doron Almog, who was elected on Sunday but has not actually been installed as chairman of the Jewish Agency.
“We call on the next government to act to remove Almog, who wants to weaken the Jewish Agency and turn this powerful Zionist enterprise into a center that gives support for cheap provocations of an anti-traditional minority,” the head of the Liba Center, Oren Henig, said in a statement.