A Wall of Intolerance

Thirty-three Reform rabbis, men and women from the United States and Canada, held their mixed-gender minyan at the Western Wall on Monday, protected by police barricades and dozens of cops, as a mob of more than 100 haredi yeshiva students hollered abuse at them.

“For a minute there, it looked like the haredim were going to storm the barricades, but there was no physical violence,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

The rabbis were called “Nazis” and “Haters of Israel” by the chanting haredim. The sight of Jewish women wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls seemed, as usual, to especially set off the protesters. The leader of the demonstration, Agudat Yisrael Knesset Member Avraham Lazarson, told the rabbis: “What you are doing here is not prayer, but Christian sex. You are degrading the Torah and the Jewish people.”

Some Reform rabbis tried to argue back, but they were overwhelmed by the mob. Hirsch said later: “It’s a shame and disgrace that rabbis have to pray inside a ‘cage’ [of barricades] at the Western Wall.”

Haredi leaders and activists in Jerusalem had gotten wind of the Reform rabbis’ plans days before, and organized the protest. Fliers were distributed in the haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The Reform rabbis had an agreement to hold the minyan in the middle of the Western Wall plaza, but police decided that it was too dangerous, that the rabbis were liable to be physically attacked by haredim. So the minyan was moved to the back of the plaza, and held within the boundaries of metal barricades manned by police.

It wasn’t only haredi leaders who denounced the Reform; the National Religious Party’s Yigal Bibi, who is a deputy minister of religious affairs, said on the eve of the rabbis’ minyan: “This marginal movement had turned into a major issue in this country. We hear about the Reform in the religious councils, in the Supreme Court, at the Western Wall. Enough! We’re sick of it. They come here once a year, and they want to disturb the peace of this holy place.”

The rabbis had scheduled their visit well in advance, but events of the week that preceded their arrival — along with the torrent of hate they met with at the Western Wall — gave fresh impetus to their talks.

The Knesset passed a bill that’s designed to bypass Supreme Court rulings and keep non-Orthodox representatives off local religious councils, which are in charge of maintaining such religious services as synagogues, ritual baths and cemeteries. The bill passed, 50-49, with former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai — the candidate for prime minister on the new center party — casting the deciding vote.

The vote was tied when Orthodox supporters of the bill noticed that Mordechai, who is nominally observant and extremely interested in winning over religious voters, was absent from the floor. Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party left 17 messages on Mordechai’s beeper to get to the Knesset, but Mordechai didn’t respond.

Then Shas strongman MK Arye Deri used his connections in the defense establishment to get Mordechai’s home phone, and left him a message that the religious parties needed him in a hurry. Mordechai received the message, raced to the Knesset and cast the deciding vote for the religious services bill.

After the vote, Mordechai was surrounded on the Knesset floor by haredi lawmakers, who were shaking his hand and slapping him on the back. “This is a great day, a great victory,” said Lazarson, who would achieve another “great victory” a few days later by leading the mob at the Western Wall.

Reform and Conservative leaders have vowed to withhold their financial support from Israeli candidates who supported the bill. Hirsch said that ARZA rabbis tried to meet with Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former military chief of staff and number two on the centrist party’s list of candidates, during their recent fund-raising visit to the United States, but the meetings were never arranged.

The rabbis were supposed to meet with Mordechai and Shahak again this week, Hirsch said, but the two took off unexpectedly for the United States for another round of fund raising. The rabbis did, however, manage to press their concerns with a number of Knesset members, including prime ministerial candidate Benny Begin, and were due also to meet with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The other recent outrage to the Reform was the remark made by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron to the effect that the Jewish people are losing more members to Reform “assimilation” than they did to the Holocaust.

“If this had been said by anybody in any other country, it would have immediately been widely denounced as a fundamentally anti-Semitic statement,” said Hirsch. He said that the sentiment was nothing new; it is echoed time and again in Israeli haredi newspapers.

What was especially disturbing, said Hirsch, was that Bakshi-Doron’s statement became known to the public, yet nobody in the leadership of the country, in the government, denounced it.

“This really casts a shadow over Israeli democracy,” said Hirsch. “All societies have their extremists; one of the ways you measure the health of a society is by the reaction to these extremists.”