Israel-Jerusalem – Prayer Rights Protest at the Western Wall, Including over Gender, Erupts into Clashes
Date: November 20, 2016
ISRAEL-JERUSALEM – PRAYER RIGHTS PROTEST AT THE WESTERN WALL, INCLUDING OVER GENDER, ERUPTS INTO CLASHES
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Members of the Women of the Wall carry a Torah scroll after prayers in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem – November 2, 2016
A protest by non-Orthodox rabbis from around the world over equal Jewish prayer rights at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – including mixed gender prayers – descended into violent scuffles amid mounting anger at the Israeli government which they accuse of foot-dragging over the issue.
The demonstration had been called over the failure of the Israeli government to provide a promised egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was agreed in January after three years of negotiations.
Before Wednesday’s protest the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – who protesters accuse of reneging on a commitment to regularise a liberalised prayer space – called on Jews living outside Israel to show “patience and tolerance” over the issue.
“We have one people and one wall – it’s our wall,” he said. “The less publicly we talk about it, the better chance we have to resolve it. The last thing we need is more friction, as that will make a solution more difficult.”
That call, however, was ignored as several hundred protesters arrived at the site on Wednesday morning, and as some Orthodox men and security officials for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation became involved in scuffles as they tried to remove Torah scrolls being carried by the demonstrators.
Regulations at the site prohibit worshippers from bringing their own Torah scrolls to the premises.
The protest was led by senior rabbis from the reform and conservative movements, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the US Union for Reform Judaism.
Witnesses said as the group tried to enter the prayer area of the Western Wall they were pushed and punched by security officials and young ultra-Orthodox men.
The march had joined forces with the monthly attempt by the Women of the Wall group to pray at the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel. The group, which has campaigned for almost 30 years for equal prayer rights – including being allowed to sing, read aloud from the Torah and wear religious clothing – has said it will move its monthly service to the new mixed section as soon as it is functioning.
While segregation of the sexes during prayer is long established within the Orthodox tradition, Conservative, Reform and other liberal forms of Judaism allow men and
The issue of equal prayer rights has become a source of tension between the Israeli government and diaspora Jews, who accuse Netanyahu of reneging on his promises to create a space at the Wall for non-Orthodox Jews to mollify the ultra-Orthodox parties in his rightwing coalition.
Commenting on Wednesday’s events Netanyahu accused the protesters of “a unilateral violation” of agreements of Jewish prayer arrangements.
“The unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there,” he said. “The prime minister and the Speaker of the Knesset said yesterday to the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements that now is the time for dialogue and not for unnecessary friction. The unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise.”
A new 900-sq-metre egalitarian prayer section, envisaged under January’s agreement, is at the southern, Robinson’s Arch, end of the Western Wall and intended to replace a platform set up as a temporary measure after a compromise reached in 2013. The new section would allow men and women who do not want to pray in a segregated area to pray together.
The expanded area, planned to cost £6m, is intended to accommodate 1,200 worshippers and be officially registered in Israel’s Law of Holy Sites. It will be administered by government officials.
The idea had been to create a prayer space where groups such as Women of the Wall and other non-Orthodox denominations who hold mixed-gender prayers without a barrier separating men from women.
Since that decision, however, new regulations have not been implemented while Orthodox groups have begun using the space for “demonstrative” and segregated prayers.
Both sides in the long-running struggle over prayer rights at the Kotel have escalated their rhetoric in the past month, with those calling for equal prayer rights vowing to push the issue and Orthodox groups determined to resist greater liberalisation by calling on supporters to use Robinson’s Arch as well.