Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday amplified ultra-Orthodox calls to mobilize against the “desecration” of the Western Wall by non-orthodox Jews, despite past rhetoric promising that the space would remain a place of pluralistic unity, rather than division.
Netanyahu, who has 2 million Twitter followers, shared a tweet by MK Aryeh Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. In the post, he implored the public to join him and dozens of other lawmakers at the holy site on Friday morning for prayers marking Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish month.
“I call on everyone for whom the sanctity of the Western Wall is important to come and pray with us, so that, God forbid, the holy place will not be desecrated,” the ultra-Orthodox politician wrote.
Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, holds monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers at the wall. In recent months MK Gilad Kariv, the first Reform rabbi to be elected to the Knesset, has passed Torah scrolls to the group so that they could hold public readings on the women’s side of the gender-segregated place of worship; women do not publically read from the Torah in ultra-Orthodox spaces.
Participants in Women of the Wall services often wear prayer shawls and phylacteries, drawing the ire of the ultra-Orthodox, who view those practices as reserved for men. The organization is frequently harassed at the wall, and have even come under violent attack from ultra-Orthodox worshipers, as have organized Conservative and Reform Jewish groups.
As Prime Minister, Netanyahu brokered a deal in 2016 which would have seen the creation of a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, but scuttled the compromise the following year after facing intense ultra-Orthodox pressure.
“This day is a sad day for me. I was amazed to see that Benjamin Netanyahu retweeted Aryeh Dery in a call to come to the Western Wall tomorrow to protest its desecration by Conservative and Reform [Jews],” Yizhar Hess, a former leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, told Haaretz.
- How a Hardcore Settler Rabbi Got 'Canceled' for Talking to Reform Jews
- 'Jerusalem Is in Ruins': Visiting the Land of Israel, 500 Years Ago
- 'Netanyahu's Entire Essence Is Division': Bennett Launches Critical Budget Vote
"I would like to remind Mr. Netanyahu of the many meetings we have had, for four full years, most of which he urged us to compromise and sign the compromise outline at the Western Wall. He pleaded and pleaded, until we conceded. I also well remember the words that Netanyahu used publically and in private rooms about his deep commitment that the Western Wall will allow prayer for all streams of Judaism and that the Western Wall belongs to everyone,” he said. “His words were so explicit that I have no one to wonder if he was misleading us then or misleading others now."
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism also condemned Netanyahu’s amplification of Dery’s call for a prayer protest. “The Kotel belongs to all of the Jewish people. Those who incite harsh attacks on Women of the Wall as they pray at the Kotel are the ones who harm the sanctity of that holy place,” he told Haaretz, referring to the wall, which is the last remaining remnant of the Jewish Temple.
“It saddens me that the former prime minister who was once a champion of ‘one wall for one people’ but now sides with those who harshly demonize those who are simply asserting their right to pray there," Jacobs said. "Implementing the Kotel agreement will establish that there is room at the Western Wall for all of us.”
Netanyahu’s move sharply contrasts with how he spoke of non-Orthodox denominations during his premiership. Addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in 2015, he said that “as Prime Minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox.” He added that he would ensure that the Western Wall “is a source of unity for our people and not a source of division.”