Labor MK sits out progressive prayer service at Western Wall to calm tensions

Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox protesters ahead of prayers and block women from bringing in Torah scroll, as most Knesset members choose to skip event

A member of the Women of the Wall clutches a Torah scroll, as she is surrounded by Israeli security forces holding back protesters at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
A member of the Women of the Wall clutches a Torah scroll, as she is surrounded by Israeli security forces holding back protesters at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Labor MK Gilad Kariv did not attend a progressive prayer group’s service at the Western Wall on Friday morning, after President Isaac Herzog asked him to forgo the ceremony, in a bid to calm the waters at the holy site ahead of potential clashes between the group and ultra-Orthodox MKs and activists.

Following Kariv’s announcement, the ultra-Orthodox MKs also stood down from their earlier call to block the prayer services, and also skipped the morning’s events. Scuffles at the site between protesters and activists were broken up by police and security guards without a major escalation.

The Women of the Wall group holds prayers at the Western Wall each Rosh Hodesh, which marks the beginning of the Hebrew month. The group’s activities — such as women praying with a Torah scroll — have long been opposed by ultra-Orthodox politicians, and their prayers are regularly disrupted by heckling and protests.

Ahead of Friday’s service, clashes broke out between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police before the Women of the Wall arrived at the holy site. Police had geared up for possible violence at the Western Wall after a call for protests by an ultra-Orthodox politician was shared by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman was at one point removed from the Western Wall plaza after attempting to bring in a small Torah scroll. At least one arrest was made during scuffles between activists and protesters, but the Western Wall rabbi said that more intense violence was successfully avoided.

The Women of the Wall accused security guards employed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation of violence against them. The Foundation rejected the accusation, alleging that the prayer group was the provocateur and that its security guards “protected the Women of the Wall group with their bodies.”

Kariv, who entered the Knesset in April, has used his parliamentary immunity to smuggle a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall, something not allowed according to the current Kotel regulations. Kariv is an ordained Reform rabbi and former director of the Reform movement in Israel.

“Following the president’s request, I announced that I will not be going tomorrow morning to the Western Wall. Once again, it’s clear which side believes in compromise and negotiations and which side is forceful and violent,” Kariv said. “The Women of the Wall will appear tomorrow morning as is their custom for Rosh Hodesh prayers, and we will continue to support them.”

Kariv told Army Radio early Friday morning that it wasn’t an easy decision. “The Women of the Wall are exposed to violence every Rosh Hodesh, while elements that receive backing from Shas and Religious Zionism regularly interfere with the egalitarian prayers.” Kariv said he will work diligently to revive the shelved plan for an expanded egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

Alon Tal of the Blue and White party also reportedly canceled his plan to attend the Friday morning ceremony after an appeal from Herzog. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office also asked Kariv to sit out the ceremony, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest as members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Following Kariv’s announcement, MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said he and his party members would also not go to the Western Wall on Friday morning to protest the ceremony since Kariv would not be using his parliamentary immunity to bring a Torah onto the site.

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir did show up at the Western Wall, the only member of Knesset to attend. “You will not harm the Western Wall,” he shouted at the prayer group.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said Thursday that it was not taking responsibility for the expected protest and scuffles, and called on the police to intensify its presence at the scene.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri had earlier called for protests against the Women of the Wall. Netanyahu then shared a Twitter post from Deri urging his supporters to block the monthly prayer service.

“Tomorrow, Friday, Rosh Hodesh Kislev, at 7 a.m., I and dozens of members of the Knesset will arrive to pray at the Western Wall,” Deri wrote in the tweet shared by Netanyahu. “I call on anyone who believes in the sanctity of the wall to come and pray with us so that God forbid this holy place will not be desecrated.”

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Shas also issued a flyer calling on the ultra-Orthodox party’s supporters to meet at the Western Wall on Friday morning to protest against “the intention of Reform Jews and Women of the Wall, with the support of the government and the coalition, to desecrate the holiness of the Western Wall.”

Along with Deri and Shas MKs, lawmakers from other factions in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc — which includes his Likud party, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, and far-right Religious Zionism — also indicated they would join the protest Friday.

Yizhar Hess, the former executive director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism Movement in Israel, said he was “astounded” that Netanyahu shared Deri’s tweet.

“I would like to remind Mr. Netanyahu of the many meetings we held… in most of which he pleaded with us to sign the Western Wall compromise deal,” Hess said in a statement. “I also remember well the words Netanyahu used publicly and behind closed doors about his deep commitment that prayer for all streams of Judaism to be allowed at the Western Wall and that the Western Wall belongs to everyone.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv hands a Torah to Women of the Wall activists on October 7, 2021. (Gilad Kariv/Twitter)

Shas and UTJ also object to proposals to revive the so-called Western Wall compromise to create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the site.

The agreement was approved by Netanyahu’s government in 2016 after years of negotiations between Israel and Diaspora leaders. But a year later, the then-prime minister capitulated to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and indefinitely froze the deal.

The temporary egalitarian prayer plaza in the Davidson Archeology Garden in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 12, 2016. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

In August, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai told The Times of Israel that reviving the agreement is on the cabinet’s agenda and enjoys wide backing in the coalition, including by Prime Minister Bennett.

On Friday, Shai reiterated his belief that the plan must be brought back to the forefront. “The events of today next to the Western Wall strengthened my belief that we must hurry in renewing the Western Wall compromise plan,” Shai tweeted. The minister said he agreed to Herzog’s request not to attend, “in order not to fan the flames, but the only way forward is renewing the compromise deal… equality for everyone. That’s the only way.”

The original plan includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council including representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government officials that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current mainstream Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.

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