‘A Desecration of God’s Name’

Women of the Wall Demands Government Inquiry Into Violent Attacks at Western Wall

‘It’s important to ask who benefited politically from this show of force against Women of the Wall 34 days before the election,’ says group’s head after thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths were bused in to protest last Friday

A member of Women of the Wall arguing with ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls during the event marking the organization's 30th anniversary and the start of the Jewish month of Adar Bet, at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, March 8, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/AFP

The multidenominational feminist prayer group Women of the Wall is demanding that a national commission of inquiry be set up to investigate acts of violence against its members during a special prayer session at Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Friday morning.

“This needs to be investigated by independent bodies like the state comptroller and the police comptroller,” the group’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, told Haaretz on Sunday.

“They need to look at the events that preceded this to see that we were definitely not the ones that provoked this,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll find the police have tapes of all the conversations we held with them the day before.”

Major clashes broke out at the Kotel when thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths descended on the Jewish holy site to disrupt a special service being held to mark Women of the Wall’s 30th anniversary.

Israeli policewomen hold back ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls gathering at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 8, 2019, in protest against members of Women of the Wall.
Gali Tibbon/AFP

Young teenage girls from religious high schools around the country were brought in by bus, in an orchestrated attempt to fill the women’s section of the Western Wall to capacity before the feminist prayer delegation arrived.

“We looked at the buses and many of them were from West Bank settlements,” said Hoffman. “We would like this commission of inquiry to look at who exempted these kids from school, who decided that 6:45 A.M. was the right time for them to arrive at the Western Wall knowing that our celebration was set to begin at 7, and who paid for 200 buses at 2,000 shekels [$550] a bus. We think it’s important to ask who benefited politically from this show of force against Women of the Wall 34 days before the election.”

Hundreds of young ultra-Orthodox men — held behind police barricades to prevent them from attacking members of Women of the Wall at Friday’s prayer service — proceeded to target male supporters of the group who had come to show their solidarity.

Women of the Wall and their supporters were shoved, scratched, spit on and verbally abused by the ultra-Orthodox youths during the prayer service.

Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman, center, wearing a traditional Jewish prayer shawl and holding onto Torah scrolls during the Rosh Hodesh event marking the organization's 30th anniversary at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, March 8, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/AFP

Women of the Wall and leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel accused the police of not fulfilling their obligation to protect them. However, the Israel Police charged that the group had provoked the violence and was to blame for the clashes.

Hoffman said representatives of Women of the Wall had warned the police a day before the event that violence was expected. “They basically told us their hands are tied and they take their orders from the Western Wall rabbi,” she added.

The clashes ultimately became so violent that Women of the Wall worshippers had to stop their prayer service midway through and be moved, with police escorts, to the egalitarian prayer space south of the women’s prayer section.

“This was the first time we ever had to stop our prayers in the middle and, let me tell you, we’ve prayed in unbelievable conditions in the past,” said Hoffman. “We’ve prayed when one of us was hospitalized. We’ve prayed when some of us were arrested. But never before did we have to stop.”

Security guards helping a member of Women of the Wall to leave the women's section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 8, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/AFP

The fact her group had to quit praying in the middle, she said, “was a desecration of God’s name, and the Western Wall rabbi needs to do some soul-searching over that.”

She said it was “a miracle” there was no “major bloodshed” on Friday, although several individuals — including Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country) — did suffer physical injuries.

Several days before the planned celebration, Women of the Wall submitted a request to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz — whose organization is responsible for protocol at the site — requesting that the group be allowed to use loudspeakers on Friday morning to accommodate the large number of supporters expected at the special prayer service. Many of them were coming from abroad. Rabinowitz rejected the request, saying it was a violation of local custom for women to use loudspeakers at the Western Wall.

In a follow-up letter on behalf of Women of the Wall, a representative of the Attorney General’s Office notified Rabinowitz that he was mistaken and it was not a violation of local custom for women to use loudspeakers at the Kotel. If he planned to prevent the women’s group from using loudspeakers during the service, the letter strongly urged Rabinowitz to ban the use of loudspeakers in the men’s section as well. However, the rabbi chose to disregard this recommendation and as soon as Women of the Wall began its prayer service, he allowed loudspeakers to be used in the men’s section, thereby drowning out the sounds of the women’s voices.

Ultra-Orthodox girls holding up their prayer books to cover their faces while protesting against Women of the Wall at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 8, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/AFP

Haaretz asked Rabinowitz for comment, but no response had been received by press time.

The driving force behind Friday morning’s attacks against Women of the Wall is believed to be a religious, right-wing movement known as Hazon (Hebrew for “Vision”). The movement, founded by a group of West Bank settlers and rabbis, has specifically targeted the LGBT community, Reform Judaism and the Women of the Wall group.

Hazon is behind a controversial new billboard that equates the Reform movement with assimilation, calling to “Keep the Western Wall normal.” Its ad says “Reform Grandpa = Assimilated Dad = Goy Grandson.”

The Hazon billboard calling to “Keep the Western Wall normal,” Tel Aviv, March 10, 2019. The text says “Reform Grandpa = Assimilated Dad = Goy Grandson.”
Tomer Appelbaum

A progressive Jewish-American organization with the same name last week issued a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the Israeli group immediately stop calling itself Hazon.

The CEO of the American organization, Nigel Savage, said that his organization “works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a more sustainable world. We’re proud of our work and of our good name, and it is frankly distressing to see our name being attached to billboards and pronouncements that so radically stand against all that we have done, and all that we have tried to do, since our founding in 2000.”