Police Brace for Violence as Feminists, ultra-Orthodox to Face Off Over Western Wall Prayer

Ultra-Orthodox mobilizing against Women of the Wall: 'The Kotel is the heart of the nation - a heart cannot be split.'

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Violence at a Women of the Wall event near the Western Wall, Jerusalem, November 2016.
Violence at a Women of the Wall event near the Western Wall, Jerusalem, November 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israeli police are bracing for an outbreak of violence at the Western Wall next Monday morning, when Women of the Wall holds its monthly prayer service. Several Orthodox groups are mobilizing to bring out large numbers of supporters in a show of force against the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, whose practices they oppose. Police fear clashes may erupt, as they have under similar circumstances in the past.

One group behind the campaign is the Liba Center, an ultra-Orthodox, right-wing organization that has petitioned the High Court of Justice against the government decision to allocate part of the Western Wall to the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall. Liba, which operates in collaboration with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, this week launched a video campaign against the government plan under the following slogan: “The Kotel is the heart of the nation – a heart cannot be split.”

The video concludes with a call to supporters to come to the Western Wall on Monday morning to “stop contempt of the Kotel.” Liba, which describes its mission as “preserving the Jewish character of the State of Israel,” recently published a report claiming to show ties between Reform Judaism and the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel. A spokesman for the organization refused to take questions from Haaretz.

Various high schools for Orthodox girls are also organizing to bring their students to the Western Wall on Monday morning. In the past, such efforts were aimed at filling up the women’s prayer plaza early enough in the morning so that no room would remain for Women of the Wall worshipers once they arrived.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, told Haaretz on Wednesday that she was contacted earlier this week by a senior officer in the Jerusalem police force, who proposed that her group not hold its prayer service this month in the women’s prayer area, but rather, in a fenced off area away from the Orthodox worshipers in order to prevent confrontations. Hoffman said her group would not agree to hold its service away from the women’s section.

She then asked if police would come to their assistance if members of her group were disrupted while praying in the women’s prayer area. According to Hoffman, the police officer responded that he could only intervene if Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the custodian of the Western Wall, requested his assistance.

“He told me that the rabbi was in charge of law and order within the confines of the Western Wall, and that the area is considered extra-territorial for police,” relayed Hoffman, who said she was shocked by this statement.

A spokeswoman for the Jerusalem police department said in response: “Visiting and entry arrangements to the Western Wall compound, as well as prayer regulations, are the responsibility of the official in charge of holy sites. Israeli police are charged with ensuring public safety and order, and in this capacity, act to allow all those who wish to visit the Western Wall and access it to do so.”

In response to a question, Rabinowitz said he would make sure that “all those who wish to pray at the Western Wall, in compliance with regulations, will be able to do so without their rights being violated.” He said he had instructed his staff to take the necessary precautions to avoid incidents of violence on Monday morning.

More than a year ago, the government approved a plan to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, where men and women could hold mixed prayer services and where Women of the Wall could pray as they see fit. Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not moved ahead with the plan.

The non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall have petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that the government fulfill its commitment, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated prayers spaces in order to make room for them. According to the latest deadline it was given by the Supreme Court, the state must submit its response to the petition on Thursday.

On Sunday, a day before the scheduled prayer service, a special Knesset committee will convene at the Western Wall to discuss changes in regulations regarding body searches at the Jewish holy site. This follows a High Court of Justice rebuke last month of Rabinowitz for subjecting women to intense body searches when they entered the Western Wall.

Participants in Women of the Wall prayer services are often pulled aside during standard security checks and forced to take off parts of their clothing to determine whether they have been smuggling in Torah scrolls in violation of rules at the Jewish holy site. These searches have continued even after the High Court of Justice weighed in.

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