Ultra-Orthodox Protest at Reform, Conservative Egalitarian Western Wall Prayers

The service was organized protest of the government's back-tracking on a decision to provide another area near the Wall for pluralistic prayer.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters seek to disrupt egalitarian prayers held by Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters seek to disrupt egalitarian prayers held by Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016. Emil Salman

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox men protested as hundreds of men and women members of the Conservative and Reform movements held an egalitarian prayer service on Thursday at the Upper Plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The service was organized by the liberal Reform and Conservative movements in protest of the government's back-tracking on its decision, of January 31 to provide state recognition and funding for another area near the Wall which was to be designated for pluralistic prayer.

The ultra-Orthodox men, some seemingly in a frenzy, danced, shoved and pushed at the worshippers. Several blew into sharp-pitched whistles, while others spat and shouted insults. 

In an apparent attempt to avoid looking at the women, some of the men covered their faces with their hats as they attempted to push them back from the Upper Plaza. Cautioned by their organizers, the Reform and Conservative worshippers refrained from responding verbally as they attempted to hold their ground.

Dozens of uniformed policemen stood in formation at the back of the Plaza, and did not intervene.

The service had been organized primarily through social media. In response, speaking on Kol Chai Radio earlier today, Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of the Old City, called on the public to prevent the planned service.

"There cannot be any compromise with the Reform," he declared.  Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall, had tried to prevent the service from taking place, but was told that it had been approved by the legal advisor to the Religious Services Ministry and the Attorney General.

Contrary to media reports, the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall was not involved in today's prayer service.  In a prepared statement to the press, their representatives clarified that Women of the Wall, "which is unique because we represent all of the movements, will not formally join in the prayer, because we do pray according to the Orthodox custom, in which men and women are separated."

This evening’s events are part of an escalating turf-war – literal and metaphoric – between the ultra-Orthodox and the liberal movements in Israel.  Even the specific location – in an area visible from the segregated parts of the Kotel – pointed to this escalation.

The area, which is visible from the segregated parts of the Wall, was used for prayers by the liberal movements and the prayer group Women of the Wall until the 1990s, when informal but well-kept arrangements allowed them to conduct mixed-gender services at Robinson's Arch.

Women of the Wall has continued to demand the right to pray aloud and read from the Torah, as women, in the women's section.

But earlier last week, Rabbi Amar, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, held a protest prayer there, with separation between men and women, accompanied by police and cameras.  With tears in his eyes, he denounced the planned new plaza as an "unforgivable wrong" and promised to be "vigilant" in the face of the "desecration" of the Western Wall.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, told Haaretz, "We've been patient. We've negotiated.  We've made compromises for the good of the Jewish people. But even our compromises aren't enough for the ultra-Orthodox.  So we have no choice but to go back to square one and start all over again.

The prayer services, Kariv promised, will continue "until the government decides to uphold its own decisions and to recognize that all Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora, have the right to pray at the Western Wall according to their own beliefs."