Reform Jews clashed with ultra-Orthodox worshipers and security personnel at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Thursday, after attempting to pray at the site in celebration of newly ordained male and female rabbis.
While members of the group, who fought security guards as they entered the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, claimed they were exercising their right to freedom of prayer, Western Wall administrators accused them of a publicity stunt.
According to the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabat website, the group of Reform Jews, accompanied by Women of the Wall — a lobby for women’s prayer rights — forced their way past security guards and entered the open Western Wall plaza where they began to dance, drawing protest from other worshipers.
There were no injuries in the incident, and it ended quickly.
The clashes occurred after an ordination ceremony at the Reform Hebrew Union College.
“The Western Wall belongs to all Israelis… Today we’re celebrating the ordination of the new Israeli Reform rabbis and we wanted to start this special day with pray and by declaring that ‘am Israel chai’ [the People of Israel live] – any type of Israeli,” said Hebrew Union College Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, whose daughter Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered was among the graduates.
Israeli Reform leader Gilad Kariv, speaking to Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2), accused the administration at the holy site of thuggery, saying the violence “will not stop us from fulfilling our right to pray at the Western Wall.”
The issue of prayer at the Western Wall has become mired in a dispute over who gets to pray and where. The main prayer area of the wall adheres to traditional religious regulations that separate men and women and do not allow women to use religious items, such as prayer shawls, phylacteries, or Torah scrolls during services.
Amid pressure by its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the Israeli government in June suspended an agreement to expand and upgrade an egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall after passing the deal in 2016. The government had negotiated the agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements along with the Women of the Wall group and the Jewish Agency for Israel. US Reform and Conservative movements were dismayed at the development and have been pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the matter ever since.
The Reform group Thursday began by holding an event in the designated egalitarian area but then left it, pushing their way through the security checks into the Western Wall plaza where men and women holding Torah scrolls reportedly began to sing and dance together, an activity prohibited in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site, accused the protesters of making a provocative display as a public relations trick to gain media attention.
“To our great regret, it was a group that arrived this morning at the Western Wall plaza, with the aim of creating a provocation and using it to push public relations, while they knew that they are knowingly infringing on Supreme Court and state decisions and were likely to offend public feelings.
“This provocative act at the Western Wall plaza, a place of unity, was a physically and verbally violent campaign at the site. We protest this unacceptable behavior, the violence, and strongly condemn it,” the statement continued, noting that the matter had been reported to police.
Kariv said that the government must act to ensure equal rights and access at the Western Wall.
Kariv criticized Netanyahu over comments he made earlier in the week to the Jewish Federations of North American in which the prime minister declared that all Jews are welcome to pray at the site.
“The prime minister can think fancy words will repair the divide with the Jewish people in the Diaspora but millions of Reform Jews in the world don’t intend to give up their right to pray at the Western Wall or any other place,” Kariv said. “We call on the prime minister to wake up before there is an irreparable rift with the Jewish world.”
“The violence by the thugs of the Western Wall Heritage Fund won’t stop us from fulfilling our right to pray at the Western Wall, just as the smooth words of Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations conference won’t heal the rift with the Jews in the Diaspora. There is a direct link between the campaign of incitement by ministers and MKs against the Reform Jews and the brutal behavior against us today at the Western Wall — the two things won’t stop us.”
Speaking at the closing session of the conference Tuesday, Netanyahu addressed his cabinet’s controversial freezing of the deal to upgrade a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall in the egalitarian section.
“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” he said, insisting that it was “vitally important” to him personally as he is committed to make Jews of all denominations feel welcome.
“I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer at the [Western Wall].”
On Monday, the JFNA’s board of trustees, representing Jewish communal philanthropies across the United States and Canada, passed a resolution calling on Israel to reverse its “divisive and damaging” steps to freeze the agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and its support of a bill that would grant a monopoly to Orthodox authorities in Israel over conversions to Judaism.
In January 2016, the Israeli government agreed to make significant changes to the existing pluralistic platform, including creating a common entrance for all three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the so-called “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together.
In June, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend part of it, notably including the plan to build a common entrance, which was seen as a form of recognizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and the provision for shared oversight of the pluralistic prayer pavilion, including by representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.