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Israeli police protect women’s prayer group from ultra-Orthodox protesters

Until now, Israeli security forces have done the bare minimum to enforce crowd control during the controversial prayer group’s once-a-month services in the women’s section of the Western Wall.

On their way to the Western Wall, the Women of the Wall prayer group holds Torah mantels, or covers, from synagogues around the world, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Jerusalem's Old City. The synagogues sent the covers in solidarity with Women of the Wall, which has been denied permission to bring Torah scrolls to the Western Wall. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

JERUSALEM (RNS) — In a historic first, hundreds of Israeli police actively protected Women of the Wall against thousands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protesters when the multi-denominational Jewish women’s prayer group prayed at the Western Wall on Friday morning.

Until now, Israeli security forces have done the bare minimum to enforce crowd control during the controversial prayer group’s once-a-month services in the women’s section of the Western Wall.

Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman, attributed the change in police behavior to the policies of the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which was sworn-in in June. Bennett, whose parents immigrated to Israel from the U.S., has vowed to heal rifts between Israel and American Jews by promoting religious pluralism.

The new government includes Gilad Kariv, a parliamentarian and Reform rabbi, but no ultra-Orthodox parties.

“We feel a difference in the government, a commitment that there won’t be bloodshed at the wall. In the past, we felt that the police weren’t protecting us. Today’s level of protection was unprecedented,” Hoffman told RNS. 

Since WOW’s establishment in 1988, the police have allowed Haredi protesters — who believe women aren’t permitted to lead prayers or read the Torah aloud — to verbally and sometimes physically attack WOW and non-Orthodox prayer groups.

On Friday, police led about 300 WOW supporters, both men and women, to the Western Wall plaza through an entrance parallel to but physically separated from the large crowd of mostly young Haredi men, who were blowing whistles and yelling “Nazi” and other slurs.

Several of the WOW activists carried colorful velvet Torah mantels — the elaborately decorated cloths that cover Torah scrolls — sent by synagogues around the world in a sign of solidarity.

The mantels were empty because Western Wall authorities prohibit people from bringing a Torah to the wall. Although the Western Wall Heritage Foundation provides Torah scrolls to male worshippers, including bar mitzva boys, the scrolls are off-limits to women.

“Women at the Western Wall are not allowed to hold a Torah scroll or read the Torah” publicly and out loud, Yochi Rapaport, director of WOW, said. “We are discriminated against and excluded in the holiest place for Jews. All that is left for us to do is hold empty Torah scroll covers to protest the terrible injustice.”  

At the security checkpoint leading to the plaza, Western Wall authorities refused to permit WOW to display the names of the synagogues attached to the mantels, calling them a form of protest.  

The police guarded the group’s female members as they made their way to a part of the women’s section that officers had cordoned off with metal barriers. Female police officers stood guard in front of the barriers, alongside guards employed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which has tried to bar WOW from praying at the wall.  

A member of the Women of the Wall clutches a Torah scroll, as she is surrounded by Israeli security forces holding back protesters at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the site to protest against the Jewish women's group that holds monthly prayers there in a long-running campaign for gender equality at the site. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

A member of the Women of the Wall clutches a Torah scroll cover as she is surrounded by Israeli security forces holding back protesters at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the site to protest against the Jewish women’s group that holds monthly prayers there in a long-running campaign for gender equality at the site. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The larger-than-usual police presence was mostly due to Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member who on Thursday called on the public to “prevent the wall, a remnant of the holy Jewish Temple, from being desecrated” by WOW.

Deri said he and “tens” of other Knesset members would be praying at the Western Wall when WOW was scheduled to gather.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retweeted Deri’s call to demonstrate.

According to the U.S. Reform movement, Israeli President Isaac Herzog asked all parliamentarians, including MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv, to stay home in order to prevent violence at the wall.  

While the politicians stayed home, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews heeded Deri’s call.

In the women’s section, an older woman stood outside the barricade and repeatedly shouted, “Where’s your kippah?” the Hebrew word for yarmulke. Some Reform and Conservative Jewish women wear a yarmulke, a head covering traditionally worn only by men.

Standing in the plaza behind the women’s section, Shmuel Cohen, a 20-year-old yeshiva student, said he had decided to pray at the wall today “to defend its honor.”

“The Kotel is a holy place, a synagogue, and it must adhere to Orthodox law,” Cohen said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.

Among WOW supporters, Joe Brophy, a student at the Pardes Institute, joined the group “to advocate for a prayer space for all Jews.”

Brophy said that when he taught Hebrew school in the U.S., he told his students that Jews have been praying in the direction of the Western Wall and the destroyed Jewish Temples for millennia. 

“It’s critical that all Jews feel comfortable here,” he said.

Despite the strong police presence, Women of the Wall issued a statement noting the day was still marred by violence.

When WOW was preparing to read from the small Torah a supporter had smuggled into the women’s section, the wall’s private security guards tried to pull it out of their hands.

“A mob surrounded the group and eventually physically pushed them out from the plaza. We were unable to read from the Torah this morning,” the statement said.

Hoffman said her group will continue to assemble in the women’s section and try to pray with a Torah until the government honors its 2016 promise to fund and officially recognize a prayer space for non-Orthodox prayer. Former PM Netanyahu, who had spearheaded the effort to create such a space, backed down after MK Deri and other ultra-Orthodox politicians threatened to bring down his government unless the pluralist prayer space was blocked.

If and when the space becomes a reality — and WOW and the non-Orthodox streams have a central role in how it is run — WOW has said it will pray there. 

“The 2016 ‘Kotel Agreement’ is a great achievement. We have great hope that this government, held together with wire and tape, will have the courage to move forward. It will be a recognition that there’s more than one way to be Jewish — even in Israel,” Hoffman said.

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