ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Reform rabbis assailed as they try to bring Torah scrolls to women at Western Wall

Members of the Noam party’s youth movement overrun holy site’s egalitarian section, are escorted out by police

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Reform rabbis and supporters of Women of the Wall march to the Western Wall with a sign protesting a bill that would criminalize women wearing prayer shawls at the holy site, on February 22, 2023. (Central Conference of American Rabbis)
Reform rabbis and supporters of Women of the Wall march to the Western Wall with a sign protesting a bill that would criminalize women wearing prayer shawls at the holy site, on February 22, 2023. (Central Conference of American Rabbis)

Clashes broke out at the Western Wall on Wednesday morning, including between Knesset members, as hardline Jews blocked and harassed supporters of the Women of the Wall group as they tried to hold a combination protest-prayer service at the holy site.

Women of the Wall supporters, including Reform rabbis visiting from the United States, said they were spat on, shoved and verbally abused by the Orthodox demonstrators as they made their way to the Western Wall.

Clashes, often violent, have become a near-monthly occurrence at the Western Wall’s main plaza, when the Women of the Wall hold a service on the first day of each Jewish month in the women’s section despite the fierce opposition of the site’s ultra-Orthodox management and many hardline Orthodox leaders.

This month, the Women of the Wall were joined by dozens of Reform rabbis from the United States, visiting Israel as part of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In addition to the prayer service at the Western Wall, the Women of the Wall and the Reform rabbis held a demonstration in the Old City against a bill proposed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that would make it illegal and punishable with prison time for a woman to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin at the Western Wall, as well as criminalizing “immodest dress” and egalitarian prayer at the holy site.

Carrying Torah scrolls, Israeli flags and a sign reading, “A woman in a tallit isn’t a criminal,” the hundred or so Reform rabbis and Women of the Wall supporters marched from the Old City’s Dung Gate to the Western Wall.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv holds a Torah scroll as he marches to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 22, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

“I am bound by my personal values and by my Jewish values to support not only the Women of the Wall, but to stand here and proudly hold the Torah for all the women who are told they cannot worship freely and openly at the Kotel [the Western Wall],” Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the CCAR, said in a statement.

“Under the most oppressive government in Israel’s history, the rights and dignity of not only all Jewish women but of all inhabitants of Israel must be respected, supported, and protected,” she said.

As the group approached the plaza, they were halted by Orthodox protesters and Western Wall Foundation security guards who attempted to block their entrance, sometimes shoving them.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Person said that she had been to Women of the Wall prayers at the Kotel before and was therefore not overly surprised by the hostility toward the group, but that it was still “pretty unpleasant.”

Though the High Court has ruled that the Women of the Wall are permitted to hold prayer services, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, has prevented them from reading from Torah scrolls as is normally done as part of the service, by establishing a rule that no outside scrolls can be used and then refusing to provide them with one from the Western Wall’s collection.

To get around this, Labor MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, has used his parliamentary immunity to bring an outside Torah scroll into the main plaza — as security guards are legally forbidden from searching or stopping him — and then handing it over to women to read at the Western Wall.

He did this again on Wednesday morning, though another Knesset member, Yitzhak Pindrus of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, attempted to physically block Kariv from reaching the Western Wall.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, center-left, shouts at United Torah Judaism MK and ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yitzhak Pindrus, center-right, as he marches to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 22, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Kariv was eventually allowed closer to the women’s section and held up the Torah scroll so they can see while women inside read the Torah portion from a piece of parchment as Orthodox protesters who shouted and blew whistles in an attempt to disrupt the service.

Separately, dozens of teenagers from the far-right Noam party’s youth branch overran the Western Wall’s egalitarian section, just south of the main plaza, and attempted to set up a gender-segregated prayer service, in violation of the site’s rules. A spokesperson for the Masorti Movement, which manages the site, said that dozens of people were praying at the egalitarian section when the teens came in, including many of the Reform rabbis from CCAR.

Police removed the teens from the area, in some cases physically dragging them out. However, they remained at the gate just outside the egalitarian section, badgering those who went in or came out, a member of the CCAR delegation told The Times of Israel.

“We were harassed on our way out of the gate, men and women. But the school kids were very aggressive to the women,” said Tamar Anitai, of CCAR.

Noam director Elkana Babad accused the police of hypocrisy for removing the Orthodox demonstrators from the egalitarian section. “How can it be that only Reform protesters have the right to visit a sacred place, but these worshipers are being removed by force?” he said in a statement.

Police remove teenage Orthodox demonstrators from the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on February 22, 2023. (Screen capture/Noam party)

The police decision to remove the teenage demonstrators appeared to be the result of a new policy that emerged from an incident in July in which Orthodox protesters entered the egalitarian section and disrupted a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies taking place there as police officers stood by. At the behest of the Jewish Agency, the Israel Police agreed to better secure the site by deploying additional officers to the egalitarian section on the first day of the Jewish month, setting up security cameras, and removing agitators.

The head of the Masorti Movement, Rakefet Ginsberg, hailed the Israel Police for removing the protesters from the egalitarian section.

“The Israeli Police deserve praise for… preventing extremists from disturbing the one place at the Western Wall that is allocated for egalitarian prayer,” Ginsberg said.

“These rioters prove again and again that the Women of the Wall are not their problem but rather that it is any prayer that isn’t ultra-Orthodox in the area of the Kotel. But we will continue to remind them that the WEstern Wall belongs to everyone, to all of Israel,” she said.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and leaders decried the Women of the Wall’s protest-prayer service, as well as Kariv’s continued use of his parliamentary immunity to bring Torah scrolls to women.

Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli of the Shas party said that “all Knesset members must denounce and reject the use of immunity by the Labor MK named Gilad Kariv, who defamed a Torah scroll and brought it to the Kotel.”

Rabinovitch, the Western Wall chief rabbi, said that Kariv and Women of the Wall had turned the holy site “into a site of provocation and demonstration, without paying attention to the consequences and harm to public sentiment and the sanctity of the Western Wall.”

CCAR Chief Executive Person dismissed the claim that she had come to the Western Wall for a demonstration. “We don’t go to the Kotel to protest, we go to pray,” she said.

Women of the Wall’s executive director Yochi Rappeport, meanwhile, accused Rabinovitch and the government of alienating non-Haredi Jews from the Western Wall.

“The chief rabbi of the Kotel and the government of Israel are signaling to Diaspora Jewry, to women, to liberal Jewry and to anyone who isn’t part of the divisive ultra-Orthodox faction that they are not wanted at this holy site for the Jews,” Rappeport said.

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