Police accused some of the Israelis who joined Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall on Friday of “deliberately creating friction and provocation” and exacerbating the clashes with the thousands of ultra-Orthodox worshipers who had flocked to the site to protest the progressive group’s presence.
A police spokesman 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’s 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.
Women of the Wall had been holding a special anniversary 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 Women of the Wall and demonstrate against the non-Orthodox 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 what they are used to enduring on a monthly basis. Two worshipers later received additional medical treatment, the spokesperson said, without elaborating on the extent of the injuries.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) March 8, 2019
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 whoever thinks that violence will win is mistaken,” Hess said.
“I think that if entry to the Western Wall plaza on Rosh Chodesh [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.”
כ-150 מתפללות מקבוצת נשות הכותל הגיעו לכותל המערבי לציון 30 שנה לארגון. אלפי מתפללים ובנות סמינר חרדיות הגיעו למקום בתגובה לאירוע. רב הכותל המערבי, שמואל רבינוביץ, הכריז כי רחבת הכותל אינה מיועדת להפגנות, וביקש להימנע מפרובוקציות@AkivaWeisz pic.twitter.com/UhII7je39S
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 8, 2019
The Women of the Wall statement also criticized Rabinovitch for refusing to sign off on a speaker system, which they requested as the number of their expected attendees made them eligible for the broadcast.
Instead, Women of the Wall said that Rabinovitch allowed for a group in the men’s section to operate their own speaker system, which was used to drown out the progressive service on the other side of the site’s gender divider.
Due to what it described as the violent harassment from ultra-Orthodox protesters, the group said it was forced to leave the main section at the Western Wall and finish its service in the egalitarian foyer at Robinson’s Arch.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 8, 2019
“We have been here for 30 years and so we will continue, every month of the year, for good,” said Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman, who called on the government to implement a currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.