Dozens of ultra-Orthodox extremists disrupted three bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian plaza of the Western Wall on Thursday morning, shouting over the services, calling the worshipers “Nazis,” “Christians” and “animals,” blowing whistles and ripping up prayer books, according to eyewitnesses.
“It was all really, really ugly,” said Laura Ben-David, who was hired by one of the families to photograph the bar mitzvah.
In one case, a young ultra-Orthodox man was filmed ripping a page out of a prayer book, or siddur, and then wiping his nose with it while smirking. This was a particularly disrespectful act as books with God’s name in them, like the siddur, are meant treated with the utmost respect in the Jewish tradition, which even requires that they be buried when no longer in use instead of being thrown out or recycled.
“How can a nation of Jews allow a reality in which people fear for their security when they are just trying to pray in their own way in a plaza that was specifically designated for this type of prayer?” wrote the Masorti Movement, Israel’s equivalent to the American Conservative movement, in a tweet.
Rabbi Arie Hasit, who officiated one of the ceremonies, said he was “broken” by the ordeal after the protesters called the bar mitzvah boy “a Christian… a Nazi and more.”
“This was an American boy who wanted to celebrate reaching the age of mitzvot, a boy who could have forgotten any connection with the Jewish people and the land of Israel but chose to go up to the Torah in Israel, in front of his parents, his grandfather and grandmother, and some family,” Hasit wrote in a public Facebook post.
איך מדינת ישראל משלימה עם מצב בו סידורים נקרעים ומוכתמים בנזלת?
למה מדינת היהודים מאפשרת מציאות בה אנשים חוששים לביטחונם בעת שהם סה"כ באים להתפלל כדרכם, ברחבה שהוקצתה בדיוק לתפילה כזו?
— התנועה המסורתית // The Masorti Movement (@MasortiMovement) June 30, 2022
The egalitarian section, sometimes known as the “Israel section,” the “family section” or, inaccurately, the “Reform section,” is located on the southern part of the Western Wall, separate from the main plaza, which is segregated by gender. It is meant to be a prayer space for use by more progressive streams of Judaism that allow men and women to sit together during services.
However, for years ultra-Orthodox extremists have interrupted these services or claimed the area as their own, setting up dividers to separate men from women. One of the more violent and egregious examples of this came last summer during the Tisha B’Av fast, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples, when a group of ultra-Orthodox broke into a prayer service at the site.
According to Ben-David, a handful of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, boys were already milling around Thursday at the egalitarian section when the families arrived for the two bar mitzvah and one bat mitzvah services.
“It was strange. We thought, ‘What are they doing here?'” Ben-David said.
Soon after the ceremonies began, dozens more arrived, bringing whistles and signs, some of which can be seen in photographs that Ben-David took and which she shared with The Times of Israel.
Their ages ranged from 13 to early 20s. Some of them wore Hassidic attire, while others appeared to be from Israel’s “National Haredi,” or “Hardal,” community.
The signs had slogans written on them like “Reform [Jews] — out!” and “You’ve invented a new Judaism, invent a new Western Wall.”
The 30 to 40 ultra-Orthodox youths screamed over the services — sometimes yelling slogans and sometimes just to make noise — and blew whistles.
According to Ben-David, the families initially tried to ignore the protesters but were occasionally baited into confrontations.
“They pushed and provoked until you couldn’t ignore them,” Ben-David said.
A small number of police officers at the scene attempted to keep the protesters away from the family but otherwise did not intervene.
Ben-David said the bar mitzvah boy who she was photographing was able to focus on the prayer service and his Torah reading despite the commotion.
“The bar mitzvah boy was great. I was very impressed. He ignored what was going on and just did what he had to do,” she said.
Hasit also noted the same boy’s calm demeanor throughout the incident.
“He was amazing. He read well, didn’t make one pronunciation mistake, despite the interruptions,” he wrote. “I, on the other hand, am broken.”
Through Ben-David, The Times of Israel reached out to the boy’s family but did not immediately hear back.
Earlier on Thursday morning and roughly a five-minute walk away, the Women of the Wall, a religious feminist group, held one of its monthly female-led Torah reading in the women’s section of the main Western Wall plaza in violation of the site’s Orthodox rabbi’s edicts. The group holds these protests-cum-prayer services at the start of each Jewish month — in this case, the month of Tammuz. There too, ultra-Orthodox protesters violently harassed the Women of the Wall members.
In light of both incidents — at the main plaza of the Western Wall and the egalitarian area — the Women of the Wall and the Masorti Movement called for incoming caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid to implement the so-called Western Wall compromise, a deal that has been on hold for over six years that was meant to give non-Orthodox Judaism representation in the management of the holy site.
This is unlikely to occur as the full implementation of the compromise requires legislation, which is nearly impossible to pass due to both the coalition lacking a majority in the Knesset and the parliament’s official dissolution on Thursday.
Earlier this month, however, a former head of the Masorti Movement, Yizhar Hess, said there were steps that could be taken to improve the situation, including some that outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has already agreed to, such as improving security at the egalitarian section.