Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Sunday assailed Women of the Wall, saying the liberal Jewish group had to be “kicked out” following Friday clashes with thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters at the Western Wall.
Women of the Wall on Friday held a special anniversary prayer service, celebrating 30 years since its establishment. Their gathering drew protests from some quarters of the ultra-Orthodox community, with several prominent rabbis calling on students to flock to the Western Wall plaza in order to disrupt the event and demonstrate against their worship.
A spokeswoman for the progressive group told The Times of Israel that several older members had been shoved to the ground by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, adding that the protest was far more intense than those they are used to enduring on a monthly basis. Two worshipers later received medical treatment, the spokesperson said, without elaborating on the extent of the injuries.
But police accused some of the Israelis who joined Women of the Wall of “deliberately creating friction and provocation” and exacerbating the clashes with the thousands of ultra-Orthodox worshipers who were protesting the group’s presence.
Women of the Wall flatly denied the charge, and accused police of “neglecting” their safety and siding with the aggressors.
On Sunday morning, arriving for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Litzman, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, told reporters: “Police declared it an [illegal] gathering by Women of the Wall. They need to be kicked out. That’s all.”
Asked whether that justified the violence against the group’s members, Litzman quipped: “The violence by Women of the Wall? No.” There have been no credible allegations of violence by members of the organization.
A police spokesman on Friday told The Times of Israel that a group of men and women who arrived at the holy site in support of Women of the Wall decided to hold a mixed-gendered service in the plaza behind the gender-segregated prayer section, “in contrast to the request of the ushers and police that they pray in the women’s section that had been allocated for them.”
That service prompted additional scuffles with numerous male ultra-Orthodox protesters, which the police managed to disperse, the spokesman said.
Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs flatly denied the Israeli authorities’ version of events, accusing the police of “brazenly lying.”
Sachs said her organization spoke with senior police officials in the days leading up to Friday’s service, telling them exactly where the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch had ordered them to pray and requesting protection from anticipated harassment “which indeed ended up taking place.”
A spokeswoman for the group said that despite the police claim that there was an area reserved for Women of the Wall in the women’s section, no such cordoned-off section was set up for them on Friday. She accused authorities of “neglecting” their safety.
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Police said that extremist protesters also clashed with officers dispatched to the holy site to maintain order. One 20-year-old protester was arrested for attempting to assault a policeman, the spokesperson said.
A statement from the Women of the Wall charged police with “abandoning” them as they endured pushing, shoving and cursing from the thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women at the site.
The head of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, tweeted that he was among those assaulted by the ultra-Orthodox protesters, saying his yarmulke and prayer shawl were yanked away from him as demonstrators pushed and shoved him. He was on site to show support for the roughly 800 Women of the Wall worshipers.
“[It was] unpleasant, but anyone who thinks that violence will win is mistaken,” Hess said.
“I think that if entry to the Western Wall plaza on Rosh Hodesh [the first day of the Jewish lunar month] is barred to Haredi youths under 30, violence will be prevented in the future,” he tweeted. “Just saying.”
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