Clashes broke out at the Kotel Plaza on Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Kislev—the first of the month of lights, Chanukah, jelly doughnuts, and dreidels—between heavy police forces and Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers, who tried to prevent a group of Women of the Wall (WOW) from entering the women’s section with empty Torah scroll covers and at least one reported real scroll. After about an hour, the women left the plaza, followed by catcalls from the men’s section.
Here’s a question: what’s religious about holding up empty Torah covers by the Kotel? It’s a purely political act, which is legitimate but doesn’t give you reason to decry religious discrimination. You’re not davening, you’re just raising a racket.
Mind you, the WOW could have read from the Torah on the Ezrat Israel pluralistic prayer platform that was built for the non-Orthodox left of the Kotel plaza by then-Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett. The WOW did that back in March 2019, but on Friday morning they didn’t come for the prayer, they came to claim their real estate.
The Israeli government in 2016 designated a much larger section of the Kotel that’s also closer to the prime real estate of the plaza for non-Orthodox services, a.k.a. “egalitarian services.” However, after the Haredi parties had threatened to quit his coalition government, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017 froze the plan and incurred the ire of Reform and Conservative US Jews who also covet the visibility and easy access of the plaza.
Yes, in religious politics it’s location, location, location.
Before the high holidays, Prime Minister Bennett was under pressure from his coalition partners in the Labor party, including former Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism Gilad Kariv, who serves as Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Bennett promised to deal with the issue after the 2021-22 budget is passed, when “we’ll be able to deal with the more complex issues.”
It so happened that the budget was passed on Rosh Chodesh Kislev – too soon for the PM to live up to his promises, but in the politics of holy real estate there are no grace periods. Incidentally, MK Kariv responded to a personal request from President Isaac Herzog not to show up at the Kotel (he was probably grateful to be able to hit the sack after 66 hours of a non-stop budget debate).
The president also spoke to the heads of United Torah Judaism and they, too, agreed to stay away, which helped a lot.
But WOW Chairwoman Anat Hoffman and CEO Yochi Rapaport showed up ready to do battle and were removed by police for trying to smuggle a small Torah scroll into the women’s section. Hoffman blamed the Haredi MKs for inciting against women. “We represent the sane Israeli Jewry,” she told Reshet Bet radio.
A statement issued by the Shas movement said that “prayer and protest will be held in the Kotel plaza against the intention of the Reformers and the women of the Wall, with the support of the government and the coalition, to desecrate the Kotel, the place from which the Shechina (God’s divine emanation) has never moved.”
Quite surprisingly, this reporter agrees with MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who said on Friday: “The Kotel is dear to all of us, Haredim, religious, and secular, and everyone is welcome there, but the Reform women do not come to pray but to spoil and stick a finger in our eye.”
By the way, Ben Gvir also showed up to protest police brutality against religious protesters, saying Orthodox Jews are nobody’s punch bags. He was right. While the WOW claims of being attacked by police were a tad overblown, the same cops were brutal with religious men at the scene.
For the Lapid-Bennett government to be able to designate a sizable portion of the Kotel plaza for “egalitarian prayer” and reconcile the Haredi and Reform positions (which on its face appears impossible), it needs industrial peace at the Kotel. Reform provocations and Haredi retaliation will only perpetuate the strife – which WOW is counting on: the more strife they generate, the bigger the donations they receive from the US.
Judging by past experience, should the current government revive the idea of a significant segment of the Kotel Plaza being made available to non-Orthodox Jews, who would be allowed to pray there in mixed services with Torah scrolls, it would be the loneliest, emptiest area of the Kotel – tumbleweeds and cricket. Reform and Conservative Jews simply don’t attend public services as often as the Orthodox, which has been shown on several occasions when Religious Zionist men took over the Reform platform and installed a mechitza (divider between men and women) – because there was no Reform or Conservative person there to protest.