Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chastised non-Orthodox Jewish movements and pluralistic prayer advocates Wednesday, over a march and prayer service they held at the women’s section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall earlier in the day, in protest of ongoing restrictions on non-Orthodox worship at the foot of Judaism’s holiest site.
“The unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there,” the prime minister said in a statement released by his office. “The prime minister and the speaker of the Knesset said yesterday to the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements [gathered at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem] that now is the time for dialogue and not for unnecessary friction. The unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise.”
Video footage appeared to show at least 100 people joining the march into the Western Wall plaza and the ensuing prayer service. The Israeli Reform movement said in a press release that “dozens” of Torah scrolls were carried into the women’s section, a first at the site, which is under the control of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment.
Scuffles broke out as some ultra-Orthodox onlookers and Western Wall officials lunged for the Torah scrolls carried by the protesters and attempted to physically bar them from entering the prayer area.
עימותים אלימים בכותל המערבי pic.twitter.com/19VoNP4dXn
— יקי אדמקר (@YakiAdamker) November 2, 2016
The prayer and protest came, as always, at the start of the new month on the Hebrew calendar, and a day after Netanyahu urged liberal Jewish movements to refrain from voicing protest over the enduring status quo on worship at the Western Wall.
The movements are protesting the non-implementation of a compromise passed in a January 31 cabinet decision calling for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in part of the Davidson Archaeological Park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have opposed the compromise, delaying its implementation indefinitely.
Women of the Wall, the activist group that has spearheaded efforts to change the status quo in favor of pluralistic prayer services at the holy site, rejected Netanyahu’s criticism on Wednesday, telling The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren on Twitter that “Mr. Netanyahu has not taken a single step towards implementing *his government’s decision* on the Kotel [Western Wall] accord!”
— Women of the Wall (@Womenofthewall) November 2, 2016
In a statement responding to Netanyahu, the Israeli Reform movement’s CEO, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, praised the prime minister’s “honest efforts to advance a compromise framework at the Kotel in recent years,” using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall. But, he added, “we believe his criticism should be directed to his coalition partners in the Haredi parties.”
Kariv went on to decry “a campaign of incitement against Reform Judaism” as the government put off implementing January’s compromise.
During the morning protest, police attempted to separate the tussling sides, but for the most part did not interfere either with the pluralistic protest or with attempts by Western Wall staffers and ultra-Orthodox worshipers to hinder them. Eyewitnesses said officers hovered close by, ready to intervene if the scuffles escalated.
Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, was elated at her group’s success at holding its morning prayers with Torah scrolls.
“I feel this day is Simhat Torah, a little late,” she told Israel Radio. Simhat Torah is a holiday that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. It fell on October 24 this year.
“For the first time in history,” Hoffman added, “a Torah scroll is in the women’s section. It’s a historic day. Every day, women should be allowed to read from the Torah if they’re interested. And at bat mitzvot. The time has come.”
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements also took part in the march.
In his comments a day earlier, on Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it. The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution.”
“The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” the prime minister said, referring to two UNESCO resolutions that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
When it was approved in January, the compromise plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” throughout most of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition, which view the Western Wall plaza as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been on ice ever since. In March, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has reportedly said the Western Wall plan “is over.”
There was no immediate statement Wednesday from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, or from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who have fought against the compromise plan.