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Ultra-Orthodox, Reformist Jews clash over prayer space at Western Wall

Progressive Judaism activists from Israel and the US are demanding Prime Minister Naftali Bennett implement the compromise on an egalitarian mixed-prayer space by the Western Wall, as was agreed under the former government.
Western wall

Verbal clashes broke out this morning at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem's Old City, when activists of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements and of the Women Of the Wall group arrived at the site, celebrating the new Hebrew month of Adar B. Facing them were thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men and women, there for the same purpose — and also to protest the activists.

The ultra-Orthodox were especially vexed to see Knesset member Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, entering the site with a Torah scroll. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation requires worshipers to use the scrolls at the site, but it does not allow Women of the Wall activists to pray with them. As a Knesset member, Kariv said he had immunity to bring his own scroll in. After the clashes, Kariv said he intends to submit a complaint by the police, as some ultra-Orthodox youngsters told him in a veiled warning, ‘’Be careful, [assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin looks for a friend.’’

For several years now, progressive Jews from Israel and the US have been demanding permission to pray by the Western Wall according to their own traditions in an egalitarian gender-mixed space. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a compromise was announced in 2016 for an egalitarian space on the southern side of the Western Wall, accessible from the main gate of the plaza, and to be managed by a council of progressive Judaism representatives.

Netanyahu’s government backtracked from the compromise in 2017, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, who were at the time part of the governing coalition. The issue has since been back and forth on Israel’s political agenda. An egalitarian space has been established, but smaller than expected, without the large entrance and without the managing council. When the new government was formed last year without the ultra-Orthodox parties, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had a Knesset majority, at least on paper, to pass the Western Wall compromise. Still, Bennett (himself Orthodox) was reluctant to enter into conflict with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

On Feb. 28, Bennett met with Reform and Conservative leaders. It was the first such a meeting since Netanyahu withdrew from the Western Wall compromise. While Bennett made no concrete promises regarding the deal’s implementation, people at the meeting noted it was very positive and lasted for an hour and a half, instead of half an hour as was originally scheduled.

Blue and White party legislator Alon Tal was one of the participants at the Feb. 28 meeting. He said it went well, noting that Bennett committed to ensuring the right to pray at the wall without being harassed and to improving its physical infrastructure. Association of Reform Zionists of America president Rabbi Josh Weinberg also felt optimistic, stating that Bennett "promised to enforce the rule of law, which is no small matter. He gets it [the issue]. He understands the importance of Klal Israel [the Jewish People as a whole] and Israeli-Diaspora relations.”

Following the clash today, Kariv said, "The time has come for the prime minister's inner circle to stop currying favor with the ultra-Orthodox parties. I call on the prime minister to meet his commitment and advance the establishment of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall immediately."

Israeli Reform Movement head Anna Kislianski, who also participated at the Feb. 28 meeting and also came to the Wall today, said, "We are bolstered by the meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett this week, which was historic in terms of recognition of the liberal movements in Israel and the Diaspora. The prime minister spoke with us at length and recognized our need to pray as we do with Israel's help at the wall, without dividers and in an egalitarian and respectful manner."

The disturbances, she said, "justify our demand for immediate implementation of the Western Wall framework. … We expect the Israeli government to implement the Western Wall [compromise] framework as we were promised. We are not tourists here. The Western Wall is ours, too."

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