Ultra-Orthodox leaders dial up Western Wall rhetoric

In the weeks since Israel’s government agreed to create a new, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox leaders and media have dialed up their opposition, threatening to derail what initially seemed a done deal.
March 16, 2016

In the weeks since Israel’s government agreed to create a new, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox leaders and media have dialed up their opposition, threatening to derail what initially seemed a done deal.

Prominent rabbis and Charedi news outlets have unleashed a stream of heated rhetoric since the prime minister’s Cabinet approved the Jan. 31 compromise, a seeming blindside to the leadership of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition that threatens to stall the decision.

In recent days, the political balance that paved the way for the compromise appears to be slipping.

Women of the Wall supporter Tzvi Kahn warns Charedi Jews outside the women’s section of the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh, March 11, that they risk being part of his prayer quorum by standing too close.

Last week, members of United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi-affiliated party, threatened to quit the ruling coalition in part because of the proposed prayer space. And on Monday, Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Sephardic-affiliated Shas party, repeated that threat, telling Israel’s Channel 2, “We will not sit in a government that recognizes reforms — not with respect to the Western Wall, not with respect to marriage, not with respect to divorce.” A defection from either party would deprive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a majority in the parliament. 

Before that, a key deadline passed when Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign regulations for the establishment of the new prayer space, which were supposed to have been ratified 30 days after the deal was struck.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, posters are calling on residents to “Come together to prepare for war,” saying the egalitarian prayer space would “increase the power of Satan.” And Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, who previously served as the country’s chief Sephardic rabbi, ruled that adding a mixed-gender prayer space is “no less serious than giving [the Western Wall] up for destruction.”

The heightened tension was palpable on the morning of March 11, as members of the activist group Women of the Wall gathered at the holy site for their regular Rosh Hodesh services, ringing in the Hebrew month of Adar.

One of the main proponents of the new prayer space, Women of the Wall is continuing to hold prayer services in the current women’s section of the Kotel (the Hebrew name for the Western Wall), with many women laying tefillin, donning prayer shawls and singing — all forbidden to women under strict Orthodox tradition. 

As a few dozen women chanted prayers at the early Friday morning service, Orthodox onlookers attempted to disrupt the service by hurling insults and blowing high-pitched whistles, which were quickly confiscated by police.

One protester held a white umbrella with slogans written in marker, including, “Bitterly protesting the desecration of God” and “Deceivers and destroyers get out.”

“It’s not easy to feel that feeling of holiness — we come to pray — with all this abuse,” Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, said in an interview in the Western Wall plaza after services concluded.

Under the proposed compromise, Sachs’ group, along with representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements, would help administrate a mixed-gender prayer space in an area adjacent to the south of the existing Western Wall plaza that is currently part of an archaeological park. The existing site would be designated for Orthodox prayer.

The prime minister’s Cabinet approved the deal by a 15-5 vote on Jan. 31, with nay votes from the ministers of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition.

The decision, if it takes effect, would break the religious monopoly on the Western Wall held by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation under the stewardship of Charedi Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But in a March 14 letter, Rabinovitch urged Charedi Knesset members to block the compromise, writing that those pushing for the new prayer space “are seeking to tear the Wall and the people of Israel into pieces,” Haaretz reported.

Although the two Charedi parties in Netanyahu’s Cabinet objected to the plan, their dissent seemed unlikely to derail the compromise or threaten the governing coalition. So by not protesting beyond a nay vote, Shas and United Torah Judaism actually gave the plan “a silent nod of approval,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and the president of Hiddush, an Israeli religious freedom and equality organization.

Charedi politicians count on the coalition to protect their core issues, such as budget allocations and exemption from the military draft, and appeared willing to sacrifice on the Western Wall in order to focus on their larger concerns.

“They have to make noises because that’s what’s expected of them,” Regev said, adding that, until recently, most observers believed they were bluffing.

But on Feb. 11, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversion programs could access government-funded ritual baths, or mikvot. Coming on the heels of the Western Wall compromise, the ruling was seen as a blow for Charedi religious interests, helping to foment a backlash.

Coupled with brewing divides between religious and political leadership in both parties and the mikveh issue, the Cabinet decision “generated much greater heat and conflict than the Charedi politicians assumed,” Regev said.

In addition to strongly worded editorials in Charedi newspapers, posters went up in some ultra-Orthodox areas with the headline, “Western Wall to be desecrated and destroyed.” 

The posters, with large, black-and-white blocks of text, warn, “The Reform movement intends to sink its claws into the wall of Jerusalem.”

Quoting several rabbinical authorities, they call the new prayer space “unthinkable.”

“This monster is worse than all the secular people we know, because through these actions, they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid,” the posters read, quoting Tzvi Pesach Frank, a former chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

In bold print, the posters also quote the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a stark call to action: “We must come together as an un-breachable wall against our enemies who are coming to insert reforms into every area of the religion.”

 Declamatory posters, called “pashkvilim,” play a significant role in Charedi communities, which tend to be hesitant about using the Internet and television as means of mass communication.

Outside the Charedi enclaves, where colors and pictures are more acceptable on public notices, glossy, red-and-black fliers sounded a similar tone, exhorting the community to “Fight for the holiness of the Western Wall!”

A spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declined to comment on the posters, instead referring to a February ruling by the Chief Rabbinate Council that held the compromise was illegal because the council had not been consulted, calling on the Israeli government to halt progress on the new site. (That ruling was also printed on posters around Jerusalem.)

Sachs blamed the posters and other similar means of incitement for the increased abuse at the Rosh Hodesh service compared with previous gatherings in recent months.

“This is the reason that there should be another plaza in the south of the Kotel — so that everybody can pray according to their way,” she said, gesturing toward the women’s section where the service had just concluded.  

Shira Pruce, public relations director for Women of the Wall, vowed the group would continue to hold services in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza until the egalitarian site opens.

For the March 11 service, group members managed to smuggle a Torah scroll into the prayer site, only the seventh time they’ve been able to do so, according to Pruce.

Rabinovitch, the rabbi in charge of Israel’s holy sites, has forbidden any visitor from bringing a Torah scroll into the vicinity of the Western Wall, effectively restricting their use to the men’s section, where many are already available to the public.

By pledging not to relent, Women of the Wall essentially poses a choice to the Orthodox leadership: Continue to tolerate the group’s presence at the current site, however begrudgingly, or allow for the establishment of a new prayer space.

Felice Gross, an Orthodox Jewish real estate executive from New York who visited the wall at the same time as the Rosh Hodesh service, said the planned mixed-gender prayer space would constitute a “desecration of the wall.” But nonetheless, she said the Women of the Wall services disrupted the brief time she had to pray there.

So, while she does not approve of the Cabinet deal, Gross conceded, “If I don’t have to hear them, it would be better.”

But many Charedi leaders see the Western Wall compromise as a slippery slope that will lead to sweeping gains for the non-Orthodox community.

In an editorial shortly after the deal was struck, the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia wrote of the Conservative and Reform movements, “They will not rest until they have dug their claws into and totally distort every facet of religious life in Israel.”

The debate over the Western Wall also carries a larger significance for those on the other side.

Regev, the religious equality advocate, called the Charedi stance “a position that says, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine as well,’ ” and fears surrendering to that view represents a disquieting step toward theocracy.

And so, a landmark compromise has now devolved instead into a bone of contention. 

Wearing a Women of the Wall baseball cap and standing outside the women’s section during Rosh Hodesh services, Oded Earon was clear about where the battle lines were drawn.

“It’s a question of whether [the Wall] belongs to the Charedis or the entire nation of Israel,” he said. “And I’m part of the nation of Israel.”

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