Haredi protesters clash with police during Women of the Wall services

Hundreds of haredi protesters clashed with police as the Women of the Wall held services at the Western Wall on Friday morning, despite MK’s who had planned on taking part in and protesting the event cancelling their visits after a request by President Isaac Herzog on Thursday night.

“Following the President’s request, I announced that I would not be arriving at the Western Wall tomorrow morning,” wrote MK Gilad Kariv overnight on Twitter. “Once again it was made clear who is the side that believes in compromise and negotiability and who is the forceful and violent side. The Women of the Wall will arrive tomorrow morning as is their custom for Rosh Chodesh prayers at the Western Wall, and we will continue to support them, until the Western Wall outline is fully implemented by the government.”

MK Alon Tal also decided to not come to the services on Friday. After the announcements, haredi MKs decided to cancel their plans to come to the plaza to confront the Women of the Wall.

Despite other MK’s cancelling their arrival at the Western Wall, Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir arrived at the Western Wall to protest against the Women of the Wall, expressing outrage that police confronted protesters who attempted to reach the women who conducted services at the site.Police confront Women of the Wall as they attempt to smuggle in a Torah scroll (Credit: Courtesy)

“They’re beating up children,” said Ben Gvir in a video tweeted by KAN news. “The behavior of the Women of the Wall is a provocation for its own sake. The Western Wall is dear to us all, religious, secular and haredi, what they are coming to do is not to pray, they are coming to stick a finger in our eyes. They are coming to hurt the sanctity of the Western Wall. They should know what we are all united in this protest.”

“Whoever behaves in holiness with the Western Wall, excellent, but those who come to disrupt, to whip up a fight, to cause a provocation, are something else,” said the MK. While no violence by the Women of the Wall was reported on Friday, hundreds of haredi protesters could be seen in footage from the scene pushing against police in an attempt to get to the women.

“Police violence has crossed a red line, the use of violence against the ultra-Orthodox is intended to silence a protest against the Reform who want to stir up the winds,” added Ben Gvir in a statement. “I came to the Western Wall to guard the Western Wall and say enough to the police brutality. The ultra-Orthodox are not a punching bag that anyone in the police who wants can beat without mercy.”

Police confronted director-general of Women of the Wall, Yochi Rappaport, after she attempted to smuggle a Torah scroll into the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza on Friday.

While sitting on the ground and speaking between the legs of Western Wall security guards, two members of Women of the Wall told Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson that it was “absurd” that in 2021 women could not read from the Torah at the Western Wall. “This Torah is our inspiration for a fight for tolerance, equality and religious pluralism. We are fighting for Israeli democracy, not just for ourselves. We will read today from the Torah, despite the disturbances.”

The Women of the Wall were eventually forced out of the plaza by security guards. Rabbi of the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and director-general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation Mordechai (Soli) Eliav thanked Herzog for his efforts to prevent Kariv from joining the services, saying this prevented larger violence. 

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation stated that its staff and Israel Police had made “tremendous efforts” to prevent violence and alercations, adding that the Women of the Wall were protected by dozens of security guards and police.

“Unfortunately, this group was constantly but unsuccessfully provocative,” said the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. “At the last moment, toward the end of the event, a small part of the group continued to try to instigate the crowd, despite repeated requests by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that they abide by the regulations of the government’s legal advisor and Ministry of Justice. The group still did not desist so Western Wall Heritage Foundation staff and the Israel Police were forced to separate the groups.”

The foundation expressed shock that the Women of the Wall were accusing its security guards of violence against them, saying the guards protected them with their bodies.

In response to the clashes on Friday, Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), and Shlomit Ravitzki Tur Paz, director of IDI’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, stated that “the friction and hostility we witnessed today at one of Judaism’s holiest sites is unacceptable and could have been avoided if the previously agreed upon ‘Western Wall Compromise’ had been honored.”

“The relationship between Israel and Jews of all denominations is a strategic one and it would be wise of the new government to renew its commitment to the arrangement that had been agreed upon by members of the previous coalition– including representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties,” added Plesner and Tur Paz.

The two stated that the passage of the stage budget provides an “excellent opportunity” to return to the Western Wall agreement. “While the Orthodox Rabbinate currently administers this holy site, it would be prudent to respect the right to prayer of all Jews as we recall the lessons of this week’s Torah portion where a bitter rivalry between brothers – Jacob and Essau –led to a devastating result.”

“The Kotel compromise does not undermine the traditional character of the Western Wall, rather it is a decision that respects Israeli and Diaspora Jewry,” added the IDI officials. “The longer the rift over Israel’s failure to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism continues, the deeper the fissure will grow. Our country must ensure religious equality if we endeavor to strengthen the special bond between Israel and Jewish communities. The continued success of the Zionist project demands that we uphold the value of equality for all denominations of Judaism.”

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev stated on Friday that he had been in contact with MKs in recent days and called on all parties involved to ensure that the law is observed and to avoid violence.

“The good readiness of the police proved itself this morning at the Western Wall, as did the emphasis placed on sensitive and sensible action – and so it was,” said Bar Lev. “I thank the police for the responsible and skilled management of the events at the Western Wall this morning”

On Thursday, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu re-tweeted a call by Shas leader Arye Deri to thwart the Women of the Wall’s scheduled prayer service at the Kotel on Friday, sparking indignation.

Violence was seen as likely, particularly from Orthodox protesters, at the holy site in the wake of Deri’s comments and Netanyahu’s support.

On Thursday afternoon, Deri tweeted that he and 10 other MKs would go to the Kotel on Friday morning and called on “anyone for whom the Western Wall is important to pray with us so that, God forbid, this holy site should not be desecrated.”

Netanyahu retweeted Deri’s tweet, leading to condemnation of him by Reform and Masorti (Conservative) leaders in Israel, and from the Woman of the Wall.

At the same time, Mordechai Eliav, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site and is also responsible for security there, wrote a letter to Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman, telling him that in light of the thousands of protesters expected at the site and the involvement of MKs, the organization was not responsible for ensuring public order at the site on Friday morning.

Regulations enacted by administrator of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, prevent anyone from bringing in a Torah scroll, a regulation he passed specifically to stop Women of the Wall from reading from the Torah in their services.

Kariv condemned Netanyahu for his retweet, calling him “a hypocrite,” and implied that the former prime minister had previously spoken in a derogatory manner about haredi behavior at the Western Wall.

Head of the Reform Movement in Israel Anna Kislanski said the organization “is hearing of unprecedented efforts to incite political and Orthodox forces against worshipers who want to pray in accordance with their own custom at the Western Wall.

“The one who has gone above and beyond, as is usual, is leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows well that the majority of the Jewish people are associated with the liberal Jewish denominations but, regardless, decides to continue with his destructive approach which he started as prime minister when he trampled on the Western Wall agreement which he himself initiated, due to ultra-Orthodox pressure,” said Kislanski.

Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel Rakefet Ginsburg called for the immediate implementation of the Kotel agreement, which Netanyahu originally backed, which would create a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall.

Ginsburg said recent violence at the site in previous months during Women of the Wall services should have raised a red flag for decision-makers, and said the Western Wall agreement must be implemented to avoid violence and even bloodshed there.

“We must not wait for a violent incident in order to draw the necessary lessons. This is our duty as public leaders to work towards dialogue, and I call on all leaders of all denominations to join this call for a solution and for calming the atmosphere,” said Ginsburg.

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