Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to protest against a Jewish women’s group that holds monthly prayers there in a long-running campaign for gender equality at the site, with minor scuffles and one person arrested.
For decades the “Women of the Wall” group has campaigned for equality of worship at the wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. Israel’s religious institutions are dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, who are opposed to any changes at the site, where men and women pray in separate areas.
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 dispute has sharpened since the swearing-in of a new government in June pushed Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties into the opposition. A newly elected lawmaker who is also a Reform rabbi has used his parliamentary immunity to bring Torah scrolls into the women’s section in defiance of rules enforced by the ultra-Orthodox administrators of the site.
Police set up metal barricades and deployed in large numbers to hold back the mostly male protesters, who blew whistles and occasionally surged forward only to be pushed back. The women carried empty mantles used to cloak Torah scrolls to protest the prohibition on bringing the scrolls themselves into the women’s section.
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.
Hoffman, the founder of the group, said they are “fighting for equality and religious pluralism and justice.”
“We cannot read from the Torah in the women’s section in 2021,” she said. “Why not? Why the hell not?”
Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right member of parliament who often makes provocative appearances at Jerusalem protests, approached the barricades with his entourage and argued with one of the women shouting: “Don’t harm the Western Wall.” He left minutes later, as supporters of the women replied, “Ben Gvir go home!”
The protests were called for by ultra-Orthodox leaders, including Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party. In a tweet on Friday that was shared Netanyahu, Deri called on his supporters to come out “so that heaven forbid this holy place is not desecrated.”
Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi and newly elected parliament member from the center-left Labor party, had planned to bring a Torah scroll into the site for the women to use but called off his visit at the request of President Isaac Herzog, who sought to prevent conflict at the site.
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.
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.
Netanyahu had shelved plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the wall in 2017 under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties who are politically allied with him.
The move infuriated adherents of more liberal strains of Judaism to which most Jews in North America adhere. The dispute has been a major point of friction between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, in Israel and the United States.
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 Naftali 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.
In Israel, ultra-Orthodox rabbis tightly control Jewish practices including weddings, divorces and burials, viewing it as their responsibility to preserve traditions that have endured centuries of persecution and assimilation. They continually resist calls for reforms from liberals, often deeming them second-class Jews who ordain women and members of the LGBTQ community and are overly accepting towards converts and interfaith marriages.