U.S., Israeli Reform Jewish Leaders Roughed Up at Western Wall by Security Guards

Major Reform Jewish leaders threatened with mace, accosted while attempting to bring Torah scrolls to Jerusalem holy site ■ Kotel rabbi: They tried to create a provocation

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, in an altercation with security guards at the Western Wall, November 16, 2017.
Israel Religious Action Center

A violent confrontation broke out at Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Thursday, when a delegation of Reform movement leaders tried to hold a Torah-reading service at the site.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was roughed up by security guards employed at the Western Wall, one of whom threatened to spray him with mace, according to eyewitnesses.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, was accosted by an ultra-Orthodox man, who tried to pull a Torah scroll out of her hands.

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Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, was detained for questioning by police after the incident, which he described as “one of the most violent” he ever witnessed at the Jewish holy site. 

About 150 Reform Jews, both from Israel and overseas, arrived at the Western Wall in the morning to participate in a special prayer and Torah-reading service in honor of four new rabbis scheduled to be ordained by the movement at a special ceremony on Thursday evening. The delegation included the entire board of governors of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which ordains Reform rabbis in Israel. 

This new crop of rabbis – two men and two women – includes the 100th to be ordained by the Reform movement in Israel.

Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel), trying to bring a Torah scroll into the Western Wall, November 16, 2017.
Israel Religious Action Center

Participants in the morning event first held a prayer service at the temporary egalitarian plaza located at the southern side of the Western Wall. Carrying eight Torah scrolls with them, they then proceeded to the upper plaza of the Western Wall – an area designated for national ceremonies. Security guards tried to stop them, and a scuffle broke out.

“Many of those holding Torah scrolls were hit and punched by the guards,” said Kariv. “I saw Rabbi Rick Jacobs taking the brunt of the blows.”

All the security guards at the site are employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run organization that administers it. 

The group participants ultimately broke through the guards and held a Torah reading service at the upper plaza that included women. They sang Hatikvah, the Israel national anthem, at its conclusion.

“While I was holding the Torah scroll, an ultra-Orthodox man came at me from behind and tried to grab it out of my hand,” Hoffman told Haaretz. “I shouted for help, and some of my colleagues came and were able to pull him off me.”

Hoffman said she witnessed a security guard threaten to spray Jacobs with mace if he proceeded ahead with his Torah scroll. “He held the bottle 10 centimeters from Rick’s nose,” she recounted. 

A year ago this month, a similar confrontation broke out when a delegation of Reform and Conservative rabbis, mainly from North America, broke through a security barrier at the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls. They were protesting the failure of the Israeli government to follow through with its commitment to create a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall, where men and women could pray together. Eight months later, the government voted to officially suspend the plan.

Kariv said this was the first time he was ever detained for questioning by police at the Western Wall. “It was all done very politely,” he reported, “and I told the policeman who questioned me that he should feel free to arrest me so that we can fight this out in court. He obviously didn’t take up my offer.”

Reform Jews, Kariv added, have no intention of forfeiting their right to read from the Torah at the Western Wall. “The nice words our prime minister repeats every time he appears before Jews abroad will not heal the great rift that has been created with Diaspora Jewry because of the Western Wall,” he said.

Asked to comment, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall and the executive director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, denied that violence had been used against the delegation of Reform Jews. “It is a lie,” he said in an email. “The violence was used against employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and this is documented in photos.”

He said the group that came to the Western Wall on Thursday morning was simply trying to create a provocation that would draw media attention. “When we understood they intended to physically push their way through and violate regulations at the site, we used our judgment and acted in order to avoid bloodshed,” he said. 

Rabinowitz added that his foundation had filed a complaint with police against the Reform movement leaders.