Orthodox groups are taking advantage of the Sukkot holiday, when many Israelis are off of work, to advance their campaign to take control of the area of the Western Wall designated for egalitarian prayer services.
In recent days, an organization known as the Joint Committee for Preserving the Holiness of the Kotel has succeeded in bringing out relatively large numbers of worshippers to the prayer space on the southern side of the Western Wall for afternoon and evening services. At these Orthodox-led services, men and women are separated by a makeshift mechitza, or barrier. The idea is to claim the territory as their own.
Non-Orthodox Jews, in particular members of the Conservative movement, use the space regularly for bar- and bat-mitzvahs. A video posted this week by the organization offers suggestions for “saving the Kotel from the control of Reform Jews” whom it claims have no right to their own prayer space because they represent only a small fraction of the population. (Orthodox Jews in Israel often refer to both Conservative and Reform Jews as Reformim – not differentiating between them.)
The video calls on Orthodox Jews to “create facts on the ground” by showing up in large numbers at the egalitarian prayer space.
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According to its website, the organization comprises several groups known to be on the far right of the Orthodox spectrum (referred to in Israel as “chardal” – an acronym for “charedim dati’im leumi’im,” or ultra-Orthodox national religious): Liba, an organization that actively lobbied the government to repeal its plan to grant the non-Orthodox movements equal status at the Western Wall; Women for the Wall, a group created for the express purpose of fighting Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group that holds monthly services in the women’s section of the Western Wall; and Betzedek, an organization committed to turning Israel into a state where halakha, or religious law, rules. On its website, the organization notes that it operates “in coordination with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
In June 2017, the Israeli government backed out of its plan to create a new and improved egalitarian space at the Western Wall, where the non-Orthodox movements would have enjoyed equal status. The move sparked outrage in large swaths of the Jewish world. Even though the plan was repealed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since promised to move ahead with his commitment to upgrade the existing egalitarian space. In the original plan, representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements were to have sat on a statutory board that would have supervised the egalitarian area.
The High Court of Justice is currently hearing a case filed against the government by the Reform and Conservative movements for not following through with its original plan.
In the video they posted, the Orthodox groups call on worshippers to join them “so that we can prove to the Supreme Court that it is that form of Judaism that continues the tradition of thousands of years that must continue to determine what happens at the Western Wall.”
In response, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said: “Hooliganism is hooliganism, even when it is committed by those who roll their eyes to the skies and masquerade as worshippers. How much evil and meanness in this attempt to steal from us this poor man’s lamb. The traditional section of the Western Wall is available for their use at all times, but they insist on bringing worshippers to our space just so they can put up a mechitza demonstratively and hold a segregated service. Just in order to mark it as their territory, too.”
He called the campaign “ugly, immoral and not Jewish.”
This is not the first time these Orthodox groups have called on worshippers to pray in the area designated for Reform and Conservative Jews. But with the new video, they appear to be taking the campaign a step further.