Netanyahu: Non-Orthodox Western Wall Protest Is Breach of Status Quo

Responding to march on Kotel by non-Orthodox rabbis – which ended in clashes – prime minister's office says he told Reform and Conservative movements to be patient.

Non-Orthodox demonstrators clash with a protester at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office responded Wednesday to the march on the Western Wall by non-Orthodox rabbis, saying that "unilateral breaches of the status quo at the Kotel harm our attempts to reach a compromise.

"The regretful events that took place at the Kotel plaza do not help advance an agreed solution to prayer arrangements," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement, adding that before the demonstration Netanyahu told non-Orthodox leaders to be "patient."

Earlier in the day, the Western Wall was a scene of chaos after Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders broke through security barriers with Torah scrolls in their arms, in defiance of the ultra-Orthodox authorities who run the holy site.

Some of the most famous people in the Jewish religious world were shoved to the ground when they resisted security officers at the Western Wall. The worshippers then made their way to the designated prayer plazas in a procession.

A group of about a dozen rabbis led the march, which started at Dung Gate in the Old City and ended at the Western Wall. They were accompanied by about 200 supporters and members of Women of the Wall, the multidenominational feminist prayer group. Dozens of others later joined them at the prayer plazas.

The procession was called to protest the Israeli government's failure to heed  its commitment to create a space at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together. On Tuesday, Netanyahu had appealed to the organizers  not to demonstrate.

Unprecedented clashes as non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into Western Wall Judy Maltz

Israel's Reform and Conservative movements expressed a measure of understanding for Netanyahu's situation.

Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into Western Wall plaza to protest Israel's inaction. Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick (L), Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman (C), Conservative Rabbi Mauricio Balter, (R) Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv. November 2, 2016.
Women of the Wall

"We value the prime minister's frank efforts to advance the compromise plan at the Western Wall in recent years, [and] believe that the criticism of him should be directed at his coalition partners in the ultra-Orthodox parties," the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism said in a statement. 

"The non-Orthodox streams are the ones that have expressed their support for the compromise plan all along the way, and they are the ones that have refrained from intensifying the battle."

But the group added a caveat: "After a frustrating year without implementation of the resolution [and with] an unprecedented incitement campaign against Reform Judaism the government should meet its commitment to the Jewish world. We call on the prime minister to announce the full and immediate implementation of the cabinet resolution."

The director of the Conservative Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, said Netanyahu had to find a way out of the "complicated situation" of his government, "which with one hand signed an agreement and with the other is violating it."

Saying that he wanted to support the prime minister, Hess said he knew "how determined he was to reach the compromise plan" and was convinced of Netanyahu's intention to implement it.

But Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz criticized Women of the Wall for holding mixed-gender prayer in the Wall women's section. He said the group showed disrespect for Torah scrolls by passing them from person to person. He also said he regretted that Women of the Wall had been joined by leaders of "the liberal Jewish movements in the United States."

 "Out of deep fear over harm to the many Torah scrolls that were brought in at the demonstration, I instructed the attendants from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation not to confront the women demonstrators despite their brutally violating not only the directive of the attorney general but every directive and  custom of the Western Wall."

Rabinowitz particularly criticized the use of Torah scrolls "as protest signs," but conceded that most of the demonstrators heeded his call not to be drawn into "the provocation and did not provide the extremist Women of the Wall the shocking pictures of Jews confronting one another at the base of the Temple's remnants."

He called the Wall "a place of unity" and said Women of the Wall was leading matters to a dead end.

Leading Wednesday's procession were Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.  Also bearing Torah scrolls were the leaders of these groups' sister movements in Israel and Anat Hoffman, head of Women of the Wall.

For the first time, the organizers had obtained a special permit from the police to bring Torah scrolls to the site. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which operates the site, prohibits worshippers from bringing Torah scrolls there. It keeps several dozen scrolls on hand for use in the mens prayer area but has never given women access to them.

The police, however, did not notify the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that such a permit had been issued at the last moment. Thus when the protesters arrived at the Western Wall's security checkpoint, security people tried to stop them from bringing the scrolls inside.

Once the Torah-bearing protesters pushed past the security people, they were confronted by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, mainly boys. Scuffles broke out, and many of the protesters carrying Torah scrolls, including women, were lightly hurt.

Police at the site did not intervene to stop the violence.