WZO says cooperation with group that violently protested Women of the Wall was error

The umbrella Zionist body issues resolution making it far more difficult to partner with similar organizations in the future, maintains commitment to ‘pluralism and mutual respect’

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

Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)
Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)

The World Zionist Organization condemned its own cooperation with an ultra-Orthodox group that violently protested against the Women of the Wall earlier this month and vowed to not partner with similar organizations in the future.

On May 2, hundreds of members of the Liba Center, which forcefully opposes female-led Torah readings and other egalitarian activities at the Western Wall, arrived at the holy site as part of a joint event with the World Zionist Organization.

The joint event was nominally meant to be a prayer service to mark the anniversary of the first Zionist Congress and to serve as a protest against another WZO-sponsored event held the night before at the Western Wall, in which the Israeli Declaration of Independence was read with the cantillations of a biblical reading, which the Liba Center considered to be disrespectful to the holy site.

In practice, however, the Liba Center event consisted almost solely of a violent protest against a prayer service that was being held by Women of the Wall, which advocates for allowing women-led services at the Western Wall.

Liba Center activists regularly protest, often violently, against Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall, and the head of the WZO, Yaakov Hagoel, had been warned that this was likely to occur, but Hagoel nevertheless approved the partnership with the organization for the event, allowing the WZO flag and other symbols to be used during the violent protest, in which Liba Center members shoved and yelled at Women of the Wall activists.

The involvement of the WZO in this violent protest against Women of the Wall — a group that is considered divisive and provocative within Israel but has far greater support from generally more progressive American Jews — prompted fierce blowback against WZO and its chairman Hagoel, who also serves as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization. The Jewish Agency even released a statement condemning the violent protests by the Liba Center, which was widely understood to have also been a censure of Hagoel.

Following an internal review of the decision-making process that led to Hagoel’s approval of the partnership with the Liba Center, the WZO executive board voted on the resolution regarding the events of May 2 on Monday.

Women hold a prayer service at the Western Wall as demonstrators protest against them on May 2, 2022. (Women of the Wall)

“The World Zionist Organization strongly condemns the behavior that was observed at the Kotel [Western Wall] on Monday, Rosh Hodesh Iyyar, in the cooperation with Liba Yehudit, which included the use of WZO symbols. This behavior is not commensurate with the founding values of the World Zionist Organization and is completely opposed to the ethos and ethics of the WZO, which is committed to pluralism and mutual respect between all streams of Judaism,” the resolution said.

It noted that the WZO’s own Jerusalem Program, its official, binding platform, “definitively entails ‘mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people'” and that the use of “the symbols of the WZO grossly violated the principles of ceremony and protocol as mentioned above.”

The resolution included a promise that the WZO would not longer partner with organizations that “include in their stated values, goals, and/or activities expressions of contempt, harassment, violence, and/or violation of the legitimacy of members and/or member bodies of the Zionist Movement.”

This would include the Liba Center, which regularly refers pejoratively to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which are members of the Zionist Movement.

The only way for WZO to cooperate with such organizations in the future, including the Liba Center, would be for a board member to bring the proposal to the board for consideration, according to the resolution.

The incident demonstrated the significant tension involved in Hagoel’s position as both chairman of the WZO and head of its right-wing World Likud movement and acting chairman of the Jewish Agency. Hagoel’s chairmanship of the WZO is effectively a political role, one that rests on his coalition with two ultra-Orthodox movements, World Shas and Eretz Hakodesh, which both oppose Women of the Wall and any potential changes to the status quo at the Western Wall, while his role at the Jewish Agency is not meant to be partisan, particularly since he was not elected to the position of chairman, but serves only in an acting capacity.

This is particularly significant as the Jewish Agency has been actively involved in brokering a deal regarding the Western Wall, specifically one that would potentially make changes to the status quo that would give greater control to more progressive streams of Judaism.

Incoming chair of the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel. (Photo: ZOA)

The WZO resolution was hailed by the Women of the Wall, who had demanded an apology and a promise to refrain from such partnerships following the incident.

“We welcome the World Zionist Organization’s important decision. Women of the Wall worked extensively with the Chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the [acting] Chairman of the Jewish Agency, as well as with other representatives in the WZO, in order to reach a decision that would undermine the Liba Center’s violent tactics against Women of the Wall,” the organization said in a statement.

“We hope that this will be the beginning of the end for the Liba Center, an organization that encourages incitement, violence, and division within the Jewish people,” it added.

The Liba Center did not immediately comment on the matter.

The vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Yizhar Hess — a former head of the Conservative movement in Israel and a political opponent of Hagoel — lauded the passage of the resolution, as well as Hagoel’s cooperation in drafting it.

“The unequivocal condemnation speaks for itself. I would like to greatly thank Yaakov Hagoel, who formulated the wording of this important resolution and brought it himself to the executive board. We both hope that this will calm things down,” Hess told The Times of Israel.

Hess refused to discuss the contents of the board meeting further.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed