Hundreds of right-wing, Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers, barged into the prayer plaza reserved for egalitarian services at the Western Wall on Saturday bent on disrupting the annual Tisha B’Av megillah-reading held by the Conservative movement at the Jewish holy site.
While a female member of the Conservative group read aloud from the Book of Lamentations, as is customary on the eve of Tisha B’Av – a day of fasting that marks the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples – the young Orthodox men and women tried to drown her out by shouting and cursing, according to eyewitnesses.
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The young men and women rejected pleas from leaders of the Conservative movement to show respect at the holy site and keep their voices down on what is considered one of the most somber days of the Jewish year.
The Orthodox teens arrived at the site, located at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, shortly after Shabbat ended, bringing with them their own partition to separate boys and girls. The Conservative movement in Israel holds a megillah reading at the space on Tisha B’Av eve every year. Several dozen members of the Conservative movement participated in Saturday night’s service.
The takeover of the egalitarian space was organized by an extreme right-wing group, known as Liba, which has been trying to prevent a revival of the Western Wall deal, which would provide the non-Orthodox movements with a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site. Since the beginning of the week, groups sent by Liba have been occupying the space almost every day, holding gender-segregated study sessions and prayer service at the site.
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Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi and head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was present at the service as well. The Labor party Knesset member said the “violent disturbances” proved the need for the “immediate implementation” of the Western Wall deal.
Yizhar Hess, deputy chair of the World Zionist Organization and the former director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said that the rabbis behind this takeover “are instigating unnecessary wars among the Jews, and on no other day than Tisha B’Av.”
“This is an act of unjustified hatred,” he added. “It is bad in the eyes of God and bad in the eyes of man."
Liba has been fighting the Western Wall deal since its inception. The deal, which was approved by the previous government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, was suspended a year and a half later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, before any construction had begun at the site. Netanyahu’s decision to walk back on the deal, which had been hailed as “historic,” drew outrage from the non-Orthodox denominations and put great strain on Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry.
Flyers promoting this week's events read: “While the government of fraud sells the state to the Reform movements [sic], let’s come and strengthen our hold on the Kotel!”
Before the new government was formed last month, the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is one of the key partners in the coalition, had reached a deal with its partners that the Western Wall deal would be revived if they assumed power. The Yamina party, which is headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and which joined the coalition much later, was not party to this agreement. But in his previous role as diaspora affairs minister, Bennett had been an enthusiastic supporter of the deal and isn't expected to stand in its way.
This is not the first time religious, right-wing activists have moved into the space designated for egalitarian prayer and set up barriers there to separate men from women. However, it is the first time that they have taken such action since the new government was formed.
The activities organized by Liba that began earlier this week coincided with the nine days of mourning that precede the fast of Tisha B’Av.