Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews converged on the Western Wall Friday morning, scuffling with police as they sought to thwart a monthly egalitarian prayer service from being held.
Police said they arrested several Haredi demonstrators for disturbing public order, in what has become a regular feature of the Rosh Hodesh prayer service held by Reform and Conservative Jews at the start of each Hebrew month, as part of their effort to expand religious pluralism at the holy site controlled by Orthodox authorities.
Officers also prevented Conservative and Reform movement leaders from reaching the prayer space as they were carrying Torah scrolls.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site according to traditional Orthodox standards, only allows its own Torah scrolls to be used during prayer services. Though a 2013 court ruling found that women have the right to read from Torah scrolls during services, in practice there are no scrolls made available in the women’s section at the Western Wall.
The non-Orthodox worshipers, led by the Women of the Wall pro-pluralism group, remained on the outskirts of the compound where they completed their service, as the hundreds of Haredi demonstrators shouted loudly in an effort to disrupt them.
Accompanying the non-Orthodox worshipers was Labor MK Gilad Kariv, himself a Reform rabbi. In a video statement he recorded while holding a Torah scroll, Kariv called on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to implement the long-frozen Western Wall compromise, which formalizes the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Kotel.
The agreement was reached in 2016 by a previous government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after years of negotiations with leaders of all streams of Judaism. The next year though, Netanyahu walked back on the compromise amid pressure from Haredi lawmakers.
מול אלפי בנות ישראל שהתפללו הבוקר בכותל בדביקות ובסדר מופתי הגיע גלעד קריב כדי לעורר פרובוקציות תוך שהוא מפר התחייבות לנשיא המדינה במסגרת סיכום שהוביל הנשיא בחודשים האחרונים ולפיו חברי הכנסת לא יגיעו לכותל בר"ח כדי למנוע עימותים. אני מקווה שעכשיו גם הנשיא מבין עם מי יש לנו עסק. pic.twitter.com/pIpASd6SEH
— בצלאל סמוטריץ' (@bezalelsm) March 4, 2022
Supporters of the pluralistic prayer pavilion were given reason for optimism when the new government was sworn in last June. A majority of the coalition’s parties campaigned on implementing the compromise.
However, Bennett has decided not to do so for the time being, amid pushback from some of the more religious members of his coalition, which doesn’t include any Orthodox parties.
But cautious of steps that don’t have the full-throttled support of all members of the government, Bennett has held off on implementing the Kotel compromise, which has sparked an outcry from Conservative and Reform leaders.
Instead, Bennett has pledged to carry out renovations at the pluralistic pavilion on the southern end of the complex. Those renovations have yet to begin though and the same pledge was made by Netanyahu years ago, though work was never done.
“It’s time for those close to the prime minister to stop sucking up to the ultra-Orthodox parties,” Kariv said. “I call on the prime minister to live up to his commitment and to promote the construction of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall immediately.”
Kariv also tweeted footage of Haredi protesters shouting at him, “Gilad, beware, Rabin is looking for a friend.” The demonstrators were referring to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the opposed to the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai tweeted that he was “saddened by scenes from the Western Wall this morning. The situation there is unjust. All Jews deserve a place at this site to pray in accordance with their customs. The Western Wall compromise must be implemented.”
“While thousands came to aggressively disrupt our prayers we showed up with enormous spiritual strength and much love as we raised our voices together in prayer for a month filled with blessing, safety, unity, and peace for all of our people here in Israel and in Ukraine,” said Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who led the pack at the Kotel while in Israel for a visit.
Lawmakers from the far-right Religious Zionism party blasted Kariv and his fellow worshipers as provocateurs. MK Simcha Rothman tweeted that Kariv was seeking to “stick a finger in the eye” of traditional Jews.
For the first time in six years, Bennett met Monday with the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, in what participants said was a warm and positive discussion during which the premier promised to improve the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
Blue and White MK Alon Tal told The Times of Israel that one of the most significant moments of the meeting came when Jacobs said during his remarks to the prime minister that — despite the tensions between progressive streams of Judaism and the government — the connection between the movements and the State of Israel is “not conditional.”
Jacobs told The Times of Israel that despite Bennett not making any specific promises regarding the Western Wall Compromise, he made it clear to the progressive Jewish leaders that reports that he personally was not invested in its implementation were incorrect.