Women of the Wall was forced to hold its monthly prayer service behind barricades on Monday morning, as busloads of Orthodox high school girls from around the country descended on the Western Wall as part of a show of force against the feminist prayer group.
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According to police estimates, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 Orthodox high school girls, many of them from schools affiliated with the national religious Bnei Akiva movement, filled up the women’s section of the Western Wall. The girls were bused in by Liba, an extreme right-wing organization behind a new campaign to force the government to repeal its plan to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Women of the Wall.
Among the girls taken out of schools to participate in the protest were students from several West Bank settlements.
Police set up the barricade in order to prevent confrontations between the two praying groups in the women’s section. About 120 women participated in the Women of the Wall morning service marking the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. Their service also included a Bat Mitzvah ceremony for an Israeli girl.
Asked about the purpose of their visit to the Western Wall, a student from one of the religious high schools, who asked that her name not be published, pointed at the Women of the Wall group situated behind the barricades, and said: “We have come to pray that they are ousted from here.”
While many of the girls prayed quietly, others heckled the Women of the Wall worshippers, several shouting at them: “You are animals. You are animals.”
Outside the women’s section, a large group of ultra-Orthodox male protestors congregated, cursing members of Women of the Wall as they entered the holy site. “Wicked women,” they shouted. “You are not Jewish. You are Christian.”
Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi and the sister of celebrity comedian Sarah Silverman, was kicked in the shin by an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator on her way into the barricaded area. Silverman is a member of the board of Women of the Wall.
The prayer service was delayed about 20 minutes because of scrupulous inspections conducted at the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Western Wall. Police requested that all visitors open their coats and empty their bags at the checkpoint. A suitcase bearing special Women of the Wall prayer books was confiscated for about 30 minutes so that each prayer book could be inspected individually.
Inside the prayer areas, the noise reached deafening levels as religious worshippers tried to drown out the sounds of Women of the Wall praying and singing. Several ultra-Orthodox women blew loud whistles, as they held up signs denigrating the feminist worshippers. These whistle-blowers make a regular practice of disturbing Women of the Wall worshippers during their monthly prayer service. Police typically do not interfere with their noisemaking.
Meanwhile, in the men’s section, the morning prayer service was blasted through loudspeakers, creating even further commotion.
As Women of the Wall exited the area at the completion of their service, a human barricade of police officers stood between them and angry ultra-Orthodox protesters, many of them delivering verbal threats against the feminist worshippers.
A spokeswoman for the Jerusalem Police said that despite the tense atmosphere at this morning’s prayer services, they ended without any unusual incidents or arrests. “Our preparations, together with those of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, allowed Women of the Wall to hold its prayer service in the women’s section as it does every month, despite the large number of high school girls praying there this morning,” said Galit Ziv, the spokeswoman. (The Western Wall Heritage Foundation is responsible for decorum at the holy site.)
Liba, which operates in collaboration with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, last week launched a video campaign condemning the government plan to create a special egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall under the slogan: “The Kotel is the heart of the nation – a heart cannot be split.” The video concluded with a call to supporters to come to the Western Wall for the Rosh Chodesh prayer service 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.
Responding to the scene at the Western Wall this morning, Izhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said the busloads of students brought to the site “simply to disrupt Women of the Wall” is proof of “how much the ultra-Orthodox right wing has taken over the government’s agenda.”
“I call on Minister of Education Naftali Bennett to summon immediately the principals of those girls schools that sent their students to this political demonstration,” he said, “and I urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to implement the plan for an egalitarian space once and for all to prevent such scenes of hatred at the Western Wall every month.”
The government approved the plan for an egalitarian space in January 2016, but under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu has failed to follow through with it. The non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall have take their case to the Supreme Court, where it is now pending.