An egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall descended into a bad tempered skirmish on Thursday afternoon, when haredi demonstrators sabotaged an event held by the Reform and Conservative Movements to underline their demands for a pluralist prayer space at the site.
Several dozen activists from the two progressive Jewish movements along with youth groups and students at a pre-military academy gathered in the upper plaza of the Western Wall to conduct the afternoon prayer service.
They were greeted by a crowd of haredi and religious youths and yeshiva students who surrounded the egalitarian worshipers as they attempted to conduct their service.
The protestors blew on whistles and bellowed various insults at those praying, with the two groups eventually pushing and shoving each other in an undignified melee in front of the Western Wall.
Despite the ugly scenes, no blows were exchanged during the event although the situation remained tense throughout.
“You aren’t Jews, you’re total non-Jews, you have no connection to the Western Wall,” shouted protestors at those praying.
Religious war at Western Wall. “You’re not Jews” cry haredi protestors at non-Orthodox worshippers pic.twitter.com/Dt2ipEq5Vj
— Jeremy Sharon (@jeremysharon) June 16, 2016
Prayer was all but impossible as the jeers and shouting of the demonstrators drowned out, for the most part, the prayers and song of the egalitarian group.
The proximate cause of the event was a gender-separate prayer service held by Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar at the current pluralist prayer space at the Robinson Arch area at southern end of the Western Wall on Wednesday.
The egalitarian prayer service was also however a warning shot across the bows of the government by the Reform and Masorti (Conservative Movements) for stalling on the implementation of a cabinet decision in January to upgrade and formally recognize an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch.
Asked why he came to demonstrate, one haredi protestor said “I pray because I believe that God is my God, they don’t believe and they don’t do what God says, I do fulfill what God commands.”
He said he was “pained” by the egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall, and claimed that if the state recognized the rights of progressive Jews it would lead to greater “assimilation” in the country.
— Jeremy Sharon (@jeremysharon) June 16, 2016
A student from the pre-military academy in Hanaton in the Galilee who came to participate in the prayer service said he was there to underline the necessity for equal prayer rights at the site.
“There is no intention here to offend the haredi community, but we want them to understand that Conservative and Reform Jews, and also Modern Orthodox Jews, have an equal right to pray here,” he said.
Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess said that those who attended the prayer service had come in peace.
“We didn’t come to demonstrate, we came to pray, this is what we did and we are still in favor of the [government approved] compromise solution at the Western Wall but if doesn’t work we’re going back to square one to demand a third egalitarian section at the Western Wall itself,” Hess told The Jerusalem Post.
Hess also criticized the police for failing to oversee the event and for not separating the protestors from the prayer group, calling their absence “disturbing,” saying that a “haredi mob were able to yell and hit and act like bullies.”
He denied that the prayer service was provocative, saying that the prayer group had exercised its right under Israeli law “and simply came to say that if the deal doesn’t work we’ll have no choice but to claim something that maybe we shouldn’t have relinquished in the beginning.”
Dov Kalmanovitz, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council who was present at the Western Wall, said that he believed that Orthodox traditions of gender separate prayer should be preserved at the site, calling the event “an unacceptable provocation.”
He said he was also opposed to the plan to upgrade the egalitarian prayer section at the Robinson’s Arch area, saying that “the entire Western Wall is holy and we need to have gender separation along its entire length.”
Following the event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that government was still working on a solution to the crisis and criticized rhetorical attacks against progressive Jews.
“As I have said many times before, the unity of the Jewish people is a source of our strength and one of the values closest to my heart,” said Netanyahu in a statement to the press.
“As we continue to work towards a solution that will allow all Jews to feel at home at the Western Wall, there are those who would prefer to divide our people and even to say that other Jews are wicked or aren’t Jews at all. We all must unequivocally reject these inappropriate words and deeds, which run counter to the basic spirit of the State of Israel.”
Kulanu MK Michael Oren also weighed in on the incident.
“The violent confrontation between Haredi and liberal Jews at the Kotel today underscores the importance of honoring the Robinson’s Arch compromise agreement,” said Oren.
“Already approved by the government, the agreement will preserve Jewish unity and prevent a potential crisis with the United States. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. To uphold our state we must respect our pluralistic people.”