Clashes broke out at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday morning as thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths descended on the holy site in an orchestrated attempt to disrupt a special service organized by Women of the Wall.
At the instruction of their rabbis, thousands of teenage girls from religious high schools around the country gathered at the Kotel, while hundreds of young ultra-Orthodox men tried to break through police barricades to attack the prayer group.
Hundreds of women, including many from North America, joined Women of the Wall in the special Rosh Hodesh service to mark the 30th anniversary of the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, which also falls this year on International Women's Day.
Several religious teenage girls approached by Haaretz said their schools had organized bussing for them so that they could make the trip to the Western Wall. They arrived especially early so that the feminist prayer group and its supporters would have a hard time finding space inside to pray.
Held at a distance from the woman by security forces, the Haredi men vented their ire on the large group of men who had come out to support the Women of the Wall, including leaders of Israel's Conservative and Reform movements.
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The non-Orthodox leaders and supporters of Women of the Wall were scratched, spit on, bullied and threatened. Meanwhile, the women participating in the prayer service were attacked by the ultra-Orthodox girls.
Asked to comment, a spokesman for the Jerusalem Police issued the following statement: "During Rosh Chodesh services this morning at the Western Wall, some members of Women of the Wall came to the main prayer area, apparently with the express intention to create friction and provocations — in defiance of requests from ushers and police that they pray in a special section allocated to them.
"Because of overcrowdedness, confrontations ensued, which were addressed by police. In accordance with their request, Women of the Wall members were then accompanied by police to the egalitarian prayer space, where they continued their service, without further incident."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, called the police statement "scandalous" and attributed it to "utter chutzpah."
"Someone in the police has apparently forgotten that the job of the police is to enforce rulings of the court and to protect women (and men) from violence. We have no qualms about saying that the Israeli police collaborated this morning with the rabbi of the Western Wall and extremist and violent organization in order to prevent Women of the Wall from exercising their legal rights."
He added: "We expect the police to withdraw this false statement and apologize to Women of the Wall."
'Bruises all over my body'
Women of the Wall held its main prayer service in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The group then moved to the egalitarian prayer section, located south of it, to hold a Torah reading service together with the men who had come to show solidarity.
The worshippers were also joined by young Israelis from a pre-military gap year program affiliated with the Conservative movement.
Among those physically attacked at the Western Wall was Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country).
Sattath told Haaretz that she left the prayer service to complain to police that many of the men who had come to support Women of the Wall were not provided with a proper prayer space next to them, as had been agreed in advance. “Then suddenly I was toppled to the ground, stepped on and scratched in the face by a bunch of young ultra-Orthodox men.”
Leaders of Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements charged that police had not provided them with adequate protection at the holy site. Indeed, although large numbers of security forces were in evidence, this reporter observed that they did not often respond to acts of verbal and physical violence directed against Women of the Wall and its supporters.
Susan Bass, president of Women of Reform Judaism, had traveled from Houston, Texas, to join the group’s 30th anniversary celebrations. These had begun on Thursday evening and will end following a special symposium Friday afternoon.
“I know that when I check I will find bruises on myself from all the kicking, punching and shoving I endured,” she said. “The women’s section was so crowded that I literally had to tilt my head back to get some air.”
Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sacks described the scene in the women’s section as “a nightmare.”
“The police failed in their duty,” she said. “They weren’t even attempting to protect us. There were thousands of young girls kicking and pushing us, and I have bruises all over my body.” Sacks reported that two elderly women, both on crutches, had to be evacuated by paramedics from the scene.
Sara Allexander, a member of an unaffiliated Jewish congregation in Woodstock, New York, was part of the delegation from the United States that had come to participate in the anniversary event. “I wanted to be part of this historic moment,” she said.
Nava Meirsdorf, an Israeli woman studying to become a Conservative rabbi, had been praying on her own, wearing phylacteries, when she said she suddenly came under attack.
“I was in the middle of the main morning prayer, my eyes closed, when I felt all sorts of things being thrown on me,” she said, her voice shaking. “I opened my eyes and saw a stampede of ultra-Orthodox young men storming in my direction. “They pushed me, spit on me and cursed me.”
Among the male supporters of Women of the Wall to be physically attacked was Nerya Knafo, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, a watchdog organization run by the Conservative movement. “I had fringes from my tallit torn off, I had my tefillin pulled off, and I had someone threaten to murder me,” he said.
A group of former Israeli paratroopers who had fought at the Western Wall in the 1967 Six-Day War also came out to support the feminist organization. They, too, were taunted by the young ultra-Orthodox men and called "stinking leftists."
Ministers stay silent
Responding to the violent events, Shmuel Shattach, executive director of Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, a progressive Orthodox movement, said: “We strongly condemn the use of insults and violence as a means to push away from the Western Wall non-Orthodox Jews. This negative approach only strengthens assimilation trends and causes the younger generation of Jews abroad to become more distant from us."
Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg denounced the display of violence and called on the police to protect members of Women of the Wall.
"Women were attacked violently – on International Women's Day nonetheless – just because they wanted to pray according to their beliefs. For years, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have been inciting against women and Reform [Jews], and when cabinet ministers are silent, the message trickles down to the streets," Zandberg said.
She further called on ministers to resist pressure from ultra-Orthodox elements and approve a plan to establish a new and improved egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
The space has long been a topic of contention between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel and abroad.