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Israeli Police Force Liberal Jews from Prayers Near Western Wall

August 12, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The showdown between fervently Orthodox and liberal Jews at the Western Wall plaza this week is the latest sign of the growing struggle between the two groups to define the nature of the Jewish state.

As the Tisha B’Av holy day began Monday evening, fervently Orthodox men began trying to shout over the prayers of about 200 men and women worshiping together in a specially designated area at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, a couple hundred yards from the wall itself.

Most fervently Orthodox Jews find such egalitarian prayer groups offensive.

Anxious to avoid a confrontation with the thousands of fervently Orthodox men milling about the plaza, police, braced for confrontation, quickly broke up the non-Orthodox prayer group and herded them forcibly through security gates at the entrance to the plaza.

Then, shoving and swearing, the police forced the group another hundred yards down a driveway leading to the Dung Gate out of the Old City, as the Conservative Jews sang a Hebrew prayer calling on God to make peace in the heavens and within the nation of Israel.

“They’re symbolically, and more than symbolically, driving us out of the gates of Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“Even in the former Soviet Union, Jews can pray in peace. To be excluded from the most important Jewish place in the world gives us some perspective on the issues. This isn’t about freedom of worship, this is about where Israel is going.”

On a range of issues — from conversion to local religious councils to the type of prayer permitted near the Western Wall — Orthodox and liberal Jews are struggling to determine whether religious life in Israel will continue to be dominated by strict adherence to Orthodox Jewish law or whether various interpretations of Jewish custom will be accepted.

“Until now the haredim controlled the religion in Israel,” Ya’akov Dahan, a member of the Eda Haredit, the haredi community’s governing organization, said as he observed the liberal Jews.

Now Conservative and Reform Jews “are trying to get into the country, too. We don’t know how to react to it.”

The reactions of the fervently Orthodox have taken mainly two forms.

One is legal: fervently Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition introduced one bill this year that would cement into law an Orthodox monopoly on conversions performed in Israel and another that would give the entire Western Wall plaza the status of an Orthodox synagogue.

They also have promised to pass legislation preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from serving on the local councils that regulate much of religious life in Israel, from marriages and burial to kosher certification.

The minister of religious affairs, Eli Suissa, said he would resign this week rather than follow a recent High Court of Justice decision upholding the appointment of a Reform woman, Joyce Brenner, to the religious council in Netanya.

The other reaction verges on violence.

On the Shavuot holiday in June, haredim pelted a group of men and women worshipers with human excrement.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of those events, some leading haredi rabbis had put up posters in the Jewish Quarter asking people to refrain from violence.

Still, the possibility of violence prompted the country’s Reform organizations to avoid the wall plaza Monday, choosing to conduct their egalitarian prayer service elsewhere.

But Conservative leaders said they felt the only way to claim their right to pray freely was by exercising it.

Although the service at the Kotel was organized by the Conservative movement, some Reform Jews, including Regev, participated.

Monday’s confrontation may be just the latest clash between the groups, but it is perhaps the most poignant.

Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of the Jews’ two ancient temples as well as a host of other calamities that supposedly happened on this date.

According to tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed nearly two millennia ago because of senseless hatred among Jewish factions.

“My Judaism means every bit as much to me as a Conservative Jew as it does to them as ultra-Orthodox,” said David Breakstone, consoling his weeping teen-age daughter, Elisheva.

“Even after 2,000 years, I see that the same hatred is still very much a part of our people, unfortunately.”

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