Tisha B’Av at the Wailing Wall to test Lapid’s seriousness about religious pluralism
On Saturday evening, Jews will gather in the egalitarian section of the Western Wall to read the Book of Wailing, describing in gruesome detail the destruction of the Jewish temple some 2,600 years ago — or so they hope.
On the Tisha B’Av day of mourning last year, Orthodox extremists swarmed the Egalitarian Section, also known as Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson’s Ark, during the reading of Lamentations, known in Hebrew as Eicha’s name. This was considered particularly heinous as Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples, the second of which is traditionally considered to have been demolished due to “baseless hatred” among Jews at the time. Comparisons between the “baseless hatred” that led to the destruction of the temple and the “baseless hatred” displayed that night abounded.
Just over a month ago, a similar group of hard-line Orthodox youngsters did it again, disrupting bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies held by American families in Ezrat Yisrael, tearing up prayer books, treating worshipers of “Nazis” and “Christians” and using whistles to drown out the services. Police officers at the scene largely refrained from intervening, acting only if there was an immediate threat of violence but doing nothing to stop the disturbances.
In between, there have been several cases of Orthodox activists erecting a gender segregation barrier, or a mechizato the egalitarian section as a form of protest against unorthodox prayer.
There was only muted criticism in Israel after the events of last Tisha B’Av and June 30. disturbances and violent protests.
“I am against any violence at the Western Wall against people who want to pray as their faith allows. This cannot go on,” Lapid said after the incident in late June.
The prime minister also called one of the bar mitzvah boys whose ceremony was overrun, telling him that what happened “did not represent the State of Israel, the people of Israel or the government of Israel,” according to a source who was on the line.
During the phone call, Lapid called the violent protests “scandalous” and said every Jew should be able to pray as they please, the source said, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity .
By Saturday night, it will be clear whether Lapid’s remarks were a genuine intent to secure the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray undisturbed in the egalitarian section of the Western Wall or just pay lip service.
“The prime minister and government of Israel have a responsibility to maintain the safety of worshipers in Israel, including at the Kotel,” Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recently told The Times of Israel. .
“Now is the time for courageous leadership,” he said.
One of the main areas of criticism following the June 30 events was police inaction, which allowed protesters, mostly ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, to relentlessly disrupt prayer services.
There are laws in place in Israel that make it an offense to insult another’s religion – which protesters allegedly did by tearing up prayer books and calling worshipers Christians – or “deliberately disturbing a group of people who have lawfully gathered together for religious worship”. ”, which the demonstrators also did with insistence.
These laws are not necessarily applicable in the aforementioned cases because non-Orthodox prayer is generally not recognized as legitimate by the Israeli government and is therefore not protected by these laws, argued Yizhar Hess, an elder of the Masorti movement. in Israel and current Vice President. -President of the World Zionist Organization.
Related: After bar mitzvah overrun by zealots, parents lament: ‘We’ve seen Israel at its lowest’
Instead, this type of mostly nonviolent protest by haredi extremists falls into a legal gray area where the police could potentially act but could also justify the situation as a legal protest. In the absence of clear guidelines and political will to repress this type of interruption, the police tend to opt for the latter option.
“On the one hand, the current guidelines do not allow the police to act. So you can enter it and do everything you are allowed to do in a public space. But on the other hand, we know that when the police want to act, they know how to act. Preventing a public disturbance is something that can be stopped without the need for special directives,” Hess told The Times of Israel last month.
In some sort of effort to address this issue, the Prime Minister’s Office sent a letter to the Society for the Development and Renewal of the Jewish Quarter, which is officially responsible for running the section of Robinson’s Arch, “clarifying” that it is forbidden to bring a mechiza in the area and that it is ultimately the responsibility of the police to enforce this prohibition.
While this would prevent the type of “takeover” protests seen in the past, where activists try to turn the area into a space for Orthodox prayer, it is far, far away from asking the police to protect egalitarian prayer. and arrest those who seek to disrupt this. The PMO directive would have done nothing to prevent the disruptions seen at the bar and bat mitzvah in June, for example.
“We are grateful that the Prime Minister’s Office has issued a letter reiterating the ban on mechizot of the article and stating that the police have jurisdiction if this happens. But I would say we need better definitions of other prohibited behaviors and where the police can intervene,” Blumenthal said.
“We hope the…government will clarify this and ensure that we can enforce a respectful prayer service at the Kotel,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
The mechiza the ban is also far from final, as was evident last week when a senior Western Wall police officer was questioned about it by Orthodox activists.
“There is no law about it. You can claim “freedom of religion”, they can claim “freedom of religion”. Everyone has their freedom,” the filmed officer told them.
There is also no indication that the police have changed their interpretation of the disruption of unorthodox prayer, viewing it as a criminal act rather than an act of legal protest.
Last month, Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo met with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and informed them that policing policies on the matter would remain the same.
“We were shocked to learn that the Israeli police were abdicating their responsibility to protect the peace of worshipers in…Ezrat Yisrael,” a spokesman for the Reform movement said.
It’s not just the police
Blumenthal stressed that security arrangements at the egalitarian section level, while important, are only a small part of the larger fight for unorthodox representation at the Western Wall.
“We don’t want to focus only on safety. This is all part of a larger discussion on the implementation of the Kotel agreement. The fact that the deal has not been implemented allows this to happen,” Blumenthal said.
He was referring to an agreement commonly referred to as the Western Wall Compromise, which would have – among other things – granted official legitimacy to non-Orthodox prayer in the Egalitarian Section and given non-Orthodox faiths a role in the management of the Western Wall. .
The government agreed to implement the deal in 2016, but at the last minute, due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted the move and he stayed. frozen since, despite current Prime Minister Lapid’s public support for the deal. compromise.
There was some hope among non-Orthodox Jews early in the current government’s term that the deal would go ahead, but internal opposition from some right-wing members of the coalition that has since collapsed has prevented the arrangement for the foreseeable future.
What will there be on Saturday night?
It’s not yet clear what will happen in the egalitarian section of the Western Wall – whether it will be a moving and uneventful reading of a book overwhelmingly describing the destruction of the First Temple and the fall of Jerusalem or if he will see another round of clashes and protests.
The Liba Center, an extremist Orthodox group that was behind last year’s protests against the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, said it does not necessarily plan to repeat itself.
Speaking to The Times of Israel last month, group leader Oren Henig called the protest against the Equality Section last year a “misstep” and said it was not planned to “fight” with progressive Jews on the site this year.
But while the Liba Center was responsible for last year’s altercation, it was not directly behind the June 30 protest. This was held by a largely uncoordinated group of teenagers and young men, and there is no clear indication that they and others will not return.
Far-right political parties, notably the Noam party, have also called on supporters to hold a gender-neutral prayer in the equality section to protest against the PMO. mechiza prohibition directive.
In the face of this, the Masorti movement in Israel – and affiliated groups – have called on supporters to fill the equality section on Saturday night so that no space is left for protesters.
“This Tisha B’Av, we fill the family section of the Western Wall and spread unconditional love,” the movement said in a Facebook post.