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US Jews ask Lapid to stop ultra-Orthodox agitation at Western Wall

Jewish-American community leaders are furious over an incident in which ultra-Orthodox activists disrupted a bar mitzvah service at the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space.

On June 30, ultra-Orthodox extremists disrupted a progressive Judaism celebration at the egalitarian prayer space near Jerusalem's Western Wall, also known as the Kotel. Unlike previous similar incidents, this one continues to reverberate throughout Israel and world Jewry. It could even become a political issue ahead of the Nov. 1 general elections. Following the incident, American Jewish leaders have been expressing anger and frustration over the unsolved issue of the gender-mixed prayer space at one of Judaism’s most sacred venues.

On numerous occasions, activists in the Women of the Wall group and others have been attacked by ultra-Orthodox extremists in the vicinity of the Western Wall, both in the segregated prayer spaces and the egalitarian space created some two years ago. Still, the June 30 attack was especially disturbing as it affected children.

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox extremists disrupted the ceremonies, shouting over the services and blowing whistles. They cursed the worshipers, calling them “Nazis,” “Christians” and “animals,” and tore up some of their prayer books.

In a Facebook post shortly afterward, officiant Rabbi Arie Hashit described his sadness and pain over the children's experiences.

“It is difficult for me to find the words to describe my experience this morning at the Ezrat Israel Egalitarian Prayer Space. I hoped the charming, shy but determined boy would not be exposed to hatred. Instead, he got dozens of children and teenagers blowing whistles, shouting, calling him a Christian, chanting that he was a Nazi, and more. An American boy who wanted to celebrate reaching the age of observance. A boy who could have easily forgotten all about the people of Israel and the Land of Israel, but instead, chose to read the Torah here in the land of Israel. … This boy was amazing. It went beautifully, and he did not make a single pronunciation mistake, despite the disturbances. I, on the other hand, am broken.”

Ezrat Israel is the only place near the Western Wall where families can pray together and perform ceremonies without a gender partition. It is located at the west side of the Wall, but does not connect to the traditional praying spots and is somewhat off the main plaza. Not all progressive Jews are satisfied with this solution, arguing that the Western Wall belongs to all Jews and that all have equal rights to pray by it. Still, even this space has been the site of repeated clashes as ultra-Orthodox activists disrupt the mixed-gender services there.

June 30 was an eventful day in Israel. It was the day the Knesset dispersed itself and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took over as prime minister, which might explain why very few Israeli politicians addressed the Western Wall incident. Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai was one of the few to do so, tweeting, “I view with great severity the riots of the ultra-Orthodox youth at the egalitarian Western Wall plaza. This is an unacceptable provocation in a place that is holy for every Jew. I expect the Israeli police to act resolutely and bring the rioters to justice.”

As it happened, the United States' special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Deborah Lipstadt arrived to Israel on July 3 for a three-day visit. She met with senior officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and with President Isaac Herzog. The June 30 incident shocked her. On July 5 she tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by the troubling actions of a group of extremists last week at the Kotel. Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism.”

Asked about Lipstadt's tweet by journalists, Lapid said, “I am against all violence at the Western Wall against people who want to pray as their faith allows them. This cannot continue. … I’ve said more than once that Israel is the only Western country in which Jews don’t have freedom of worship, which is unacceptable to me.”

While initially attracting little attention in Israel, the affair stirred anger in Jewish-American communities. On July 4, heads of the Jewish Federations of North America and of Keren Hayesod sent a letter to Lapid asking him to react to the violent incident. "At this uniquely important and special day for the young boy, surrounded by his friends and family who had traveled from the United States to the holiest site for the Jewish people, his bar mitzvah celebration was viciously attacked by protesters who apparently object to the manner of prayer at the site," said the letter.

The Jewish-American leaders noted in their letter, "No effort to unite or strengthen the ties between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora can be remotely successful while such behavior is allowed to continue. We respectfully feel that immediate actions should be taken to — at the very least — ensure the safety, security and well-being of all those who come to the entire Kotel area, as well as to make certain that all worshipers are accorded the same level of respect we would expect if this were our own families — because it is our own Jewish family."

In recent years, Lapid had supported the struggle of progressive Judaism communities for an egalitarian prayer space by the Western Wall. As prime minister committed to rehabilitate and strengthen ties with American Jewry, the task of addressing these confrontations now lies squarely on his shoulders.

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