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Jewish Agency pans violence against Women of the Wall at event its own chief backed

After an icy board of governors meeting, acting JAFI chief Yaakov Hagoel signs onto criticism of group he partnered with, after it clashed with liberal Jews at Western Wall

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

Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)
Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)

The heads of the Jewish Agency on Sunday night issued what could be viewed as a condemnation of the agency’s own acting chairman, Yaakov Hagoel.

Hagoel had partnered with a religious group that ended up protesting against and violently clashing with the Women of the Wall last week. He did so as chairman of the World Zionist Organization, rather than in his role at the Jewish Agency.

“We strongly condemn the behavior displayed in the strongest possible terms. Such conduct is against the foundational values of The Jewish Agency and runs completely against every aspect of our ethos and ethics,” the three heads of the Jewish Agency — Hagoel, CEO Amira Ahronoviz and Chairman of the Board of Governors Michael Siegal — wrote in a letter to the dozens of members of the board of governors.

Last Monday, the Women of the Wall — an organization that advocates allowing women-led prayer services, including readings from the Torah, at the Western Wall — gathered at the holy site to hold such a service in honor of the start of the Hebrew month, or Rosh Hodesh, of Iyar.

They were met by fierce resistance from ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, protesters — as they are every month — but on this occasion, the demonstrators against Women of the Wall were doing something new: waving the flag of the World Zionist Organization, an umbrella organization representing a wide range of Zionist groups from around the world.

The protesters were from an organization known as the Liba Center, which forcefully opposes female-led Torah readings and other egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall and thus regularly clashes with the Women of the Wall and other groups.

That includes a roundly denounced confrontation last summer in which members of the Liba Center overran a service at a designated mixed-gender prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, the holiday in which Jews mourn the destruction of the two temples that stood on the Temple Mount.

The Liba Center had approached the WZO about a joint event in which some 1,000 ultra-Orthodox girls would be brought to the Western Wall by bus for what the organization said would be a Rosh Hodesh prayer service — one without Torah reading.

The ultra-Orthodox event was also meant to serve as a protest against another WZO-sponsored event held the night before at the Western Wall, in which the Israeli Declaration of Independence was read with the cantillations of a biblical reading.

That event had been organized by the liberal vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization and former director of Israel’s Conservative movement, Yizhar Hess. (Though he is Hagoel’s vice-chairman, Hess holds decidedly different political views.) Haredi protesters saw this reading of a secular document in the style of scripture at the Western Wall as disrespectful to the holy site.

A WZO committee led by Hagoel signed off on the partnership as an apparent attempt to serve as a counterpoint to Hess’s event, despite receiving warnings that it would likely result in clashes with the Women of the Wall’s monthly service that was scheduled for the same day.

Indeed, the Haredi girls from the Liba Center did not hold their own prayer service but instead protested against the Women of the Wall, shouting and whistling over the service and occasionally shoving the women who took part in it.

“They took out flags on staffs and started waving them as they whistled over our prayers, as they hit us, shoved us — all of this with the flag of the World Zionist Organization. We were pained, not just physically but emotionally,” Yochi Rappeport, CEO of Women of the Wall, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“We were appalled, absolutely appalled,” she added.

Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)

The involvement of the WZO in this violent protest against Women of the Wall — a group that is considered divisive and provocative within Israel but has far greater support from generally more progressive American Jews — was sharply denounced within the Jewish Agency, with specific criticism directed against Hagoel. Other Jewish organizations from around the world, including the British Board of Deputies, similarly condemned the incident.

Hagoel has served as chairman of the WZO since 2020 and in addition serves as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency since Isaac Herzog left the role in 2021 to become president of Israel. This puts Hagoel in a somewhat odd position as his chairmanship of the WZO is a political role, while his role at the Jewish Agency — a quasi-governmental organization — is not meant to be partisan, particularly since he was not elected to the position of chairman, but serves as one only in an acting capacity.

Within the WZO, he is head of the right-wing World Likud movement, which is in a coalition with two ultra-Orthodox movements, World Shas and Eretz Hakodesh, who oppose Women of the Wall and any potential changes to the status quo at the Western Wall.

As the Jewish Agency has been actively involved in brokering a deal regarding the Western Wall — and specifically making changes to the status quo that would give greater control to more progressive streams of Judaism — Hagoel’s partnership with the Liba Center and its occasionally violent protesters was seen by some members of the board of governors as a grave misstep, one that was significantly out of line with the Jewish Agency’s views.

Incoming chair of the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel. (Photo: ZOA)

On Sunday night, an emergency board meeting was held in which members expressed their misgivings to Hagoel, resulting in the letter that was subsequently sent out condemning the violence at the Western Wall the previous week, a letter which Hagoel himself signed.

Indeed, the letter noted the Jewish Agency’s commitment to religious pluralism.

“We are proud of our record for promoting pluralism in Israeli society and mutual respect among the multiple streams of Judaism. Needless to say, [a] strong response is essential to these highly disturbing events,” it said.

The board meeting came hours after representatives from Women of the Wall met with Hagoel, demanding an apology from him for his decision to partner the WZO with the Liba Center and its protesters.

“We demanded an apology not just for Women of the Wall but for the entire Jewish people that this happened with the consent of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. And we demanded a promise that the World Zionist Organization would never again partner with the Liba Center,” Rappeport said.

Hagoel did not offer such an apology or promise at the meeting, but said instead that he would look into what happened and into the conduct “of all sides” before proceeding, Rappeport said. WZO has also said that it did not provide funding for the busses of Liba Center activists.

Hagoel made similar comments at the Jewish Agency meeting, apparently implying that the violence at the Western Wall may have been started by the Women of the Wall and not the Liba Center. Footage from the clashes do not appear to justify this assertion, however.

Rappeport said the Women of the Wall had reached out to supporters around the world and encouraged them to voice their concerns to Hagoel and the WZO.

The president of the British Board of Deputies, Marie Van Der Zyl, for instance, sent a letter to Hagoel on Monday asking for an “explanation regarding this extremely disturbing incident, as well as [his] absolute assurance that the WZO will not engage in any such behavior in the future.”

Rappeport said she did not know what Hagoel’s internal probe of WZO will find, but she preemptively rejected any attempts by him to claim that he was unaware that the busses full of Liba Center activists planned to disrupt the Women of the Wall service and were only going to the Western Wall for their own prayers.

“They know that Liba specifically comes to interfere. This isn’t a secret. They openly interrupt us. Of course, no one [from WZO] told them, ‘Go be violent against Women of the Wall.’ But when you put one and one together, it equals two,” she said.

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