After progressive Jewish worshippers were attacked at the Western Wall last week by ultra-Orthodox girls taking part in an event sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, Jewish world leaders are questioning whether Yaakov Hagoel should remain in his dual role as WZO chairman and acting chairman of the Jewish Agency.
In an unusual move, several dozen leaders of Jewish federations across North America initiated an emergency conference call with Hagoel on Sunday to find out how an event where 150 members of the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall were attacked could have been sanctioned by the WZO.
They asked how he was involved and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. Participating in the conference call were representatives of the biggest Jewish federations in the United States and Canada, according to sources familiar with the exchange.
Many of these federation leaders were deeply troubled by the prospect of the Jewish Agency being implicated – if only by association because of Hagoel’s dual roles – in attacks against Women of the Wall. Indeed, the Jewish Federations of North America is the single largest funder of the Jewish Agency.
It was the Jewish Agency that 10 years ago spearheaded the Western Wall deal, which was designed to provide the Reform and Conservative movements with official status and a proper space for egalitarian prayer at the Jewish holy site. The deal, which was suspended by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also meant to stop the attacks against Women of the Wall at the site by ultra-Orthodox worshippers unable to bear the sight of women praying in unorthodox ways.
A spokesman for Jewish Federations of North America would not confirm or deny that a meeting with Hagoel had taken place, and merely added: “Violence is never the solution, and violence targeting religious pluralism at the Kotel is particularly egregious. Monday’s incident took place on the eve of Yom Hazikron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when we recall the deep price our people have paid to gain access to this site. It is a stark reminder of how important it is to honor those sacrifices, and bring about a permanent and equitable resolution to the situation by implementing the Kotel Agreement.”
Hagoel, who is Orthodox and an avid supporter of the West Bank settlement movement, was appointed chairman of the WZO in October 2020 during the World Zionist Congress. The Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and Keren Hayesod are known as "the national institutions" and predate the State of Israel.
- Women of the Wall attacked at event organized by World Zionist Organization
- Reform, Conservative leaders get reassurances from Israel's Bennett on Western Wall deal
- ‘Puzzling’: Israel approves $35 million for Orthodox activities at Western Wall, not a cent for egalitarian space
In the coalition agreement signed during the October 2020 gathering, it was decided that a representative of World Likud would be appointed chair. Hagoel at the time was chairman of World Likud, a right-wing movement.
Last June, Isaac Herzog, the former Labor Party leader, left his position as Jewish Agency chairman to become Israeli president. Several months later, the Jewish Agency board of governors decided that Hagoel would serve as acting chairman until a full-time leader was appointed.
In February, after months of indecision, the committee for selecting a new Jewish Agency chief disqualified all seven candidates and started the race again from scratch. Hagoel chairs the selection committee.
Last Monday, at their monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer service, Women of the Wall worshippers were taunted, shoved and spat on by ultra-Orthodox girls who had been brought on buses to the Western Wall by the WZO. Nearly 1,000 ultra-Orthodox girls took part in the WZO-sponsored prayer event that was ostensibly meant to mark the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. It began, however, at the exact same hour, 7 A.M., that Women of the Wall begins its monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer service.
The counter-event was initiated by several departments in the WZO, all of them run by ultra-Orthodox parties and allied with World Likud. To help organize the event, the WZO teamed up with Liba, a group that fiercely opposes egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and has declared fighting the spread of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel one of its key missions. Liba often organizes mass events at the Western Wall that target Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements.
On Sunday, the Jewish Agency issued a statement to members of the board of governors expressing its deep concerns about last week’s violence at the Wall. The letter was signed by Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of governors, Director General Amira Ahronoviz and Hagoel. According to sources helping draft the statement, Hagoel was told that it would be sent out with or without his signature.
The statement noted that several members of the board had contacted Jewish Agency leaders with questions about what had happened at the Western Wall.
“We strongly condemn the behavior displayed in the strongest possible terms,” the statement said. “Such conduct is against the foundational values of the Jewish Agency and runs completely against every aspect of our ethos and ethics.”
According to the statement, the Jewish Agency had been informed that the WZO had launched an inquiry into the incident, “and we eagerly await its findings.”
“We are proud of our record for promoting pluralism in Israeli society and mutual respect among the multiple streams of Judaism,” it added. “Needless to say, strong response is essential to these highly disturbing events.”
On Sunday, leaders of Women of the Wall met with Hagoel and demanded that he apologize for last Monday’s events and promise that the WZO would never again partner with Liba. “Regretfully, Mr. Hagoel refused to take responsibility for the violent incidents at the Western Wall that targeted Women of the Wall,” the organization said in a statement after the meeting.
It said that Hagoel told Women of the Wall leaders that the incident would be investigated, “but to our great surprise requested proof of the violence, as if the photos, the complaints we lodged with police and the fact that one of the young girls was detained were not enough.”
When contacted last week about the attacks on Women of the Wall, the WZO said in a statement that it and other groups had organized several events to mark Israeli Independence Day. “Anything else attributed to us is groundless,” it said. “We view gravely any attempt to create a provocation over these festive events.”
When asked about Women of the Wall and the Jewish Agency statement, the WZO added: “The chairman runs a large organization with representatives of different parties and movements, and is meant to provide freedom of speech to all of them within the boundaries of good taste and according to the regulations of the WZO. In the wake of ongoing complaints from Women of the Wall and a meeting with them on Sunday morning, the chairman took a decision of leadership and decided to undertake an internal inquiry.”