JERUSALEM (JTA) — Rabbi Rick Jacobs and other Reform Jewish leaders were pushed, pulled and had clothes torn by security guards as they tried to pray at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem.
The guards and haredi Orthodox worshippers tussled with the group Thursday as it entered the main entrance to the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls. The guards said it was illegal to bring the scrolls into the main plaza. Reform leaders accused the haredi administration of the holy site, which employs the guards, of denying their right to freedom of prayer.
Jacobs said that during the clashes, a guard put his finger on the trigger of a bottle of pepper spray, and put it up to Jacobs’ face. His suit jacket was also ripped on the side as guards shoved him and pressed their bodies on his.
“The guards were really pushing hard,” Jacobs told JTA. “The guard who was standing right in front of me took his pepper spray and put it right in our face.”
Israeli Reform chief Gilad Kariv, speaking to Israel’s Hadashot news, accused the administration of acting like “thugs” and said the violence “will not stop us from fulfilling our right to pray at the Western Wall.”
The Reform group began their prayer in Robinson’s Arch, a non-Orthodox section of the holy site to the south of the main plaza. They then tried to enter with the Torah scrolls. They ended up finishing the service in the main plaza, in a large tourist area that is removed from the wall but adjacent to the Orthodox areas for men and women. A group of haredi protesters also shoved some of the worshippers then, according to Jacobs.
The group included the entire board of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which had just ordained four new rabbis, and members of the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group.
The brief fracas caused no injuries.
Administrators accused the non-Orthodox Jews of flouting the rules of the main plaza, “with the aim of creating a provocation and using it to push public relations.”
“This provocative act at the Western Wall plaza, a place of unity, was a physically and verbally violent campaign at the site,” the Western Wall Heritage Foundation said in a statement. “We protest this unacceptable behavior, the violence, and strongly condemn it.”
The Western Wall’s main plaza, administered by the Heritage Foundation, requires men and women to pray separately and bars women from using religious items, including Torah scrolls. It prohibits visitors from bringing their own Torah scrolls in an attempt to prevent women and non-Orthodox Jewish groups from using them in services at the site.
Jacobs said that the Reform worshipers “never were aggressive, we never threw any punches, we were very determined.”
The non-Orthodox groups have repeatedly challenged the rules, leading to sometimes violent confrontations. They have also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for backing out in June from a 2016 agreement to expand and upgrade the Robinson’s Arch prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall. The haredi parties in the governing coalition had demanded the move.
“We belong there, we have a right to be there, and the Jewish people and state of Israel will be strengthened when the country, the Western Wall, is truly welcoming to Jews of all beliefs and practices,” Jacobs told JTA. “Things are not fine. We’re not going back, we’re not going to take bread crumbs and say that Robinson’s Arch is good enough.”
At the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly Monday in Los Angeles, the board of trustees passed a resolution calling on Israel to reverse its “divisive and damaging” steps to freeze the Western Wall deal.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu addressed the controversy in a speech at the closing session of the conference.
“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” he said. “I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer at the [Western Wall].”