Group That Swarmed Egalitarian Western Wall Prayer Says It Has 'No Interest' in a Repeat This Year

Members of right-wing Orthodox group Liba violently stormed the holy Jerusalem plaza last year to protest an egalitarian Tisha B'Av service, but the organization's leader says it now plans to stay away

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Tisha B'Av prayers at the Western Wall, last year.
Tisha B'Av prayers at the Western Wall, last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Fears have been escalating that Jerusalem's Western Wall will see a repeat of last year's Tisha B'Av violence during an annual event held by Israel's Conservative movement, but the leader of the right-wing Orthodox group responsible for that provocation says he will stay away this year.

Last year, during the Conservative movement's annual Tisha B’Av megillah reading, hundreds of right-wing Orthodox Jews stormed the plaza reserved for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, where this service is traditionally held, determined to drown out the sounds of a woman reading from the Book of Lamentations. They also came equipped with mechitzas, or barriers, so that they could hold their gender-segregated service in the space, in defiance of the local custom.

Liba, the organization behind the violent takeover, has in the past year provoked several confrontations at the Western Wall with the progressive Jewish movements and feminist prayer group Women of the Wall.

But with the Tisha B’Av Jewish holiday fast approaching – the fast begins on Saturday night – the organization’s leader says he will stay away from the egalitarian prayer plaza on Saturday night, to the great relief of Conservative movement leaders in Israel.

“We know that what they want is baseless hatred, but we will not give them the pleasure,” said Oren Henig, the director of Liba. “We have no interest in fighting with them.”

Liba’s actions last year drew fierce condemnation around the Jewish world, including from prominent Orthodox rabbis.

The organization has been fighting to prevent a revival of the Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site. After Israel’s outgoing government was formed, the group intensified its activities out of fear that the new center-left coalition would be more open to demands from the non-Orthodox movements.

Despite such expectations, the government headed by Naftali Bennett never made any moves to reinstate the Western Wall deal, which had been approved by the Netanyahu government in January 2016 only to be suspended a year and a half later.

The Conservative movement is expecting about 300 participants at Saturday night’s megillah reading service. Rakefet Ginsberg, executive director of the movement in Israel, said that some of the regular participants had expressed trepidation about coming because of last year’s violence. “But for this very reason, there were others who said they felt it was even more important to show up this year,” she said.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a new regulation prohibiting the use of mechitzas in the egalitarian prayer space. The Tisha B’Av service will be the first major event held at the site since this regulation took effect.

Henig said Liba intends to defy the prohibition, insisting that it has no legal basis, and says after Tisha B’Av the group will begin frequenting the egalitarian space again and erecting mechitzas there.

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