JERUSALEM (JTA) — Protesters for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall who brought about a dozen Torah scrolls to the women’s section on Wednesday morning were met with pushing and shoving by haredi Orthodox worshipers and cries of “Nazis” and “whores.”
The scrolls were carried into the women’s section for use during the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Wall as part of a protest march against restrictions on egalitarian worship at the site led by leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel and the United States.
Among the estimated 100 marchers were Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation has prevented women from bringing Torah scrolls into the women’s section. The Women of the Wall group has held its monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer for the new Hebrew month in the women’s section for more than 25 years.
The haredi protesters tried to prevent the marchers from bringing the scrolls to the women’s side of the Western Wall plaza. One photo showed a black-clad haredi woman punching a worshipper from Women of the Wall.
Protesters also blew loud whistles to disrupt the service and shouted epithets at the women, including”Nazis,” “goy” and “whores.” Many of those shouting were young boys.
Police at the site reportedly stood by and in some cases filmed the proceedings. In one video posted by Women of the Wall, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, warned police that if they did not intervene to help allow the women to worship undisturbed that he and his colleagues would do so.
“The Western Wall won’t be the same Wall after today,” Kariv told Haaretz. “For the first time, women and men, Reform and Conservative Jews, secular and Orthodox, demand their right to enter the Western Wall. Today we liberated the Western Wall from the control of ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t decide for the rest of the Jewish people how to pray … We won’t acquiesce any longer to discrimination, to incitement, or to the Israeli government’s shameful surrender to a small and aggressive minority.”
Later Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement critical of the protest oganizers. According to the statement, the “unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there.” The statement called the incident “unnecessary friction,” and said the “unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise.”
The statement echoed comments that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Tuesday night in a speech to about 200 Jewish Diaspora leaders in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting.
“We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it,” he said hours before the well-publicized protest. “The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution.”
Warning against what organizers of the Torah procession called an “act of civil disobedience,” Netanyau continued: “The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction.”
He added: “Sometimes things require patience and tolerance. I’ve been dealing with this now for over 20 years. I can tell you I have patience and tolerance, and I hope you do, too.”
An agreement for egalitarian prayer at the site announced in January would expand the egalitarian section at the wall and place it under the authority of a pluralist committee while solidifying haredi Orthodox control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section. Women of the Wall would move to the non-Orthodox section once the deal is implemented.
The agreement was negotiated among Women of the Wall, the site’s haredi Orthodox leadership, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli government, and the Reform and Conservative movements. All parties praised the decision as path breaking at the time.
Later, however, the religious partners backed away from the deal and in June, a group of Orthodox Jewish organizations filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the establishment of the egalitarian section.
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the Women of the Wall last month petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to order the government to follow through on the plan to create the egalitarian prayer area next to the Western Wall.