Jewish Agency: Police will be deployed to guard Western Wall’s egalitarian section

Organization says it’s working to improve security at Jerusalem Old City’s ‘Ezrat Yisrael’ prayer site and better explain its importance to Israelis after disruptions this summer

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/Times of Israel)
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/Times of Israel)

The Jerusalem police force has agreed to boost security at the Western Wall’s egalitarian section following violent protests at the site this summer, a top Jewish Agency official told the organization’s Board of Governors on Sunday.

In late June, a group of Orthodox extremists entered the egalitarian section and disrupted a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies taking place there, blowing whistles to drown out the prayers, calling the worshipers “Christians” and “Nazis,” and tearing up prayer books. Police, who were at the scene, largely allowed these disruptions to continue, only intervening when there was explicit violence.

In response to this incident, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors passed a resolution calling the incident “despicable” and demanding that the organization take action to ensure the safety of visitors to the egalitarian section, also known as Ezrat Yisrael and Robinson’s Arch.

“We’ve pushed forward to improve the security. I think the situation now is much better,” said Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog.

However, he stressed that making immediate security improvements was only part of the Jewish Agency’s overall plans for the egalitarian section. The organization is still officially committed to getting the government to implement the long-stalled Western Wall compromise, which — among other things — would give full control over the egalitarian section to non-Orthodox denominations. Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Western Wall chief rabbi has official authority over it.

“Ezrat Yisrael issue is highly important for us, representing the mosaic of all the Jewish people equally,” Almog said.

The Western Wall compromise was approved by the government in 2016 before being indefinitely mothballed due to ultra-Orthodox opposition. The agreement is unlikely to be implemented under the presumed next government of Israel, which is expected to be the most Orthodox coalition in the country’s history.

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)

Josh Schwarcz, secretary-general of the Jewish Agency, who was tapped with spearheading the security improvements, updated the board about his efforts, specifically his meeting with the head of the Jerusalem District’s David Station, which is located in the Old City.

Schwarcz said he met with the commander of the David Station shortly after the resolution was passed to discuss the issue and that he was “very, very open.”

Following the meeting, the officer agreed to deploy approximately five officers to the egalitarian section at the start of every Jewish month, a holiday known as Rosh Hodesh. This is because the religious rights activist group Women of the Wall holds protest-prayers at the Western Wall on those days, which are met by generally violent counter-protests.

Schwarcz said the police deployment was aimed at curbing spillover from those clashes into the egalitarian section.

“This way police won’t have to be called in. They will already be stationed in Ezrat Yisrael,” Schwarcz said.

In addition, the police agreed to install a security camera in the egalitarian section to allow officers to more easily monitor the situation there, he said.

Over 1,000 security cameras are installed in Jerusalem’s Old City, but currently the only one with a view of the egalitarian section sits atop the Temple Mount and offers only a partial view of the site that is further blocked by the umbrellas that are typically used to shade the plaza.

The Israel Police did not immediately confirm Schwarcz’s claims.

Since the incident in late June, there have been no violent protests held at the egalitarian section. Fears that further protests would occur on the Tisha B’Av day of mourning this past August — as occurred the year before — did not materialize. This was at least in part attributed to the fact that Israel was fighting a minor battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip at the same time.

The US government has also pushed for Israeli authorities to improve security at the site following the disruptions in June, as all of the families who were present at the time were American citizens. At the time, US Special Envoy on Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt said “there’d be little hesitation in labeling [what happened] antisemitism” had it happened in any other country.

Jewish Agency CEO Amira Ahronoviz said the organization was also working to boost the egalitarian section’s standing among Israelis, many of whom are entirely unaware of its existence and purpose.

“We are trying to bring it to their awareness and to get them to make use of Ezrat Yisrael,” Ahronoviz said.

She said the Jewish Agency was working to encourage local communities across Israel to establish egalitarian prayer spaces in their own municipalities.

Ahronoviz said the organization planned to advance this at an upcoming meeting of Israeli municipalities, MUNIEXPO, which is scheduled for next month.

“We are committed to bringing our assets and expertise into making this happen,” she said.

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