Israel: Prayer protesters in violent Western Wall clash with ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews

Reform and conservative Jewish communities march on Jerusalem holy site to demand equal prayer rights

Matt Broomfield,Andrea Valentino
Thursday 03 November 2016 20:47
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Elyahu Lopianski, left, says female rabbis should never be allowed to pray at the Western Wall
Elyahu Lopianski, left, says female rabbis should never be allowed to pray at the Western Wall

Hundreds of Reform Jewish activists marched on Jerusalem’s Western Wall yesterday, demanding equal access to one of the most holy sites in Judaism and scuffling with their ultra-conservative Orthodox brethren.

“It’s us against them,” counter-demonstrator Hakim told The Independent in the aftermath of the violence. “If there were more Orthodox here, it could have been World War Three.”

Members of more liberal Jewish communities were determined to pray at the sacred site formerly known as the Wailing Wall, despite religious law stating that only the Orthodox tradition is allowed.

Female protesters attempting to make their way to the Wall were knocked down by Orthodox demonstrators

In January, after three years of negotiation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to set aside a new section of the Wall for non-Orthodox Jews. Under pressure from Orthodox members of his administration, he has failed to enact the plan.

There is also a ban on female rabbis leading prayers and singing, so Conservative and Reform Jews were led by members of the campaign group Women of the Wall as they marched through Jerusalem’s Old City.

Waiting for the protesters were groups of Orthodox Jews, incensed by what they saw as a violation of religious law. Many in their teens or younger, they blocked cameras with their kippahs as they grappled with liberal Jews in front of the sacred Wall.

Female rabbis were shoved to the ground, even as their male colleagues tried to keep the Orthodox boys away from them. Orthodox children shrilled on whistles incessantly, attempting to drown out the sound of women praying.

A minimal police presence meant clashes were inevitable. But it also allowed Jews of all denominations to mingle – and argue.

“The Torah never changes,” Elyahu Lopianski, a young Orthodox Jew, told The Independent. “There is no need for reform.

The march on the Western Wall was led by female rabbis

“There has been separation between men and women since the time of the Torah, and these protests harm the holiness of the Western Wall.”

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, a Reform rabbi, disagreed. “The Torah has been changing for 2000 years,” he said. “It’s like our prayer says: all Jews ‘turn their eyes towards Zion’ when they pray. The Western Wall is a place for all Jews, not just the Orthodox.”

Though Mr Weinberg and Mr. Lopianski shook hands after their discussion, other exchanges were less polite. Many American Jews attended the event in solidarity with the female rabbis. Approaching two such girls, Orthodox demonstrator Hakim chastised them for “not being proper religious Jews, [who] don’t know enough Torah.”

One of the Americans,Torah scholar Emma from Los Angeles, invited him to a Reformed Shabbat dinners. “I hope to God I won’t attend. LGBT [rights], equality, feminism – that’s all you talk about,” he replied.

Only 20 per cent of young American Jews now feel Israel is an important part of their Judaism, compared to 40 per cent of their parents. Moreover, over half of young American Jews feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of the Jewish state.

The government’s indulgence of Orthodox extremists has already damaged support for Israel from the Jewish diaspora, where the Reform movement is the largest community. By intensifying the building of illegal Zionist settlements through East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the ruling Likud coalition has angered its traditional allies in the United States.

A number of very young Orthodox protesters were the main cause of disruption

America has recently granted Israel the largest package of military aid in its history, worth some $38bn over 10 years, so for now this relationship seems safe.

But Phillip Meltzer, an ex-president of the Association of Reformed Zionists of America, told The Independent: “Israel needs to make diaspora Jews welcome. The younger generation [of American Jews] will not accept Israel if it excludes such a big portion of diaspora Jewry. This might not happen now, but in ten years, twenty years, it will.”

Instead, Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday afternoon condemned the “unilateral violation” of prayer arrangements by liberal diaspora Jews.

As the demonstration surged away from the Wall, police finally moved in to separate worshippers from the shoves of Orthodox youths. Harsh cat-calls drowned out their prayers.

“This shouldn’t be a war,” Yali, a Reform rabbi from the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, told the Independent. “I’m sorry for the Orthodox and how they are acting.”

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