Dozens of Orthodox boys and young men descended on the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, just south of the main plaza, last Thursday morning, to disrupt three bar and bat mitzvah services that were taking place there. They blew whistles, hurled epithets at the attendees, and ripped up prayer books.
They didn’t succeed in preventing the prayers — the ceremonies were held to completion, with full readings of the Torah and the recitation of the Hallel prayer service — but they did cause those in attendance to question, however slightly, their connection to Israel and to their fellow Jews, specifically Orthodox Jews.
The two bar mitzvah boys and one bat mitzvah girl had come to Israel from the United States to mark their coming of age in the Jewish tradition. One of the boys and the girl are dual US-Israeli citizens and their guests were a mix of American tourists and native Israelis. The other bar mitzvah boy, Seth Mann, came with a large group of friends and family from the US, some of them visiting Israel for the first time.
Mann’s bar mitzvah speech, which was broadcast live on YouTube, demonstrated his idyllic view of what the Western Wall meant, which was then shattered by a far more challenging reality.
“I can’t think of a better place than this to understand what it means to be part of a community and part of a people,” Mann read from his prepared speech, before stopping and laughing at the irony, looking up at the scores of Orthodox men and boys a few yards away who were furiously trying to convince him that he was not part of that people, or at least not a valued member.
For the adults at the ceremonies, the experience left them with a dim view of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewry.
“I, personally, was completely surprised by how disruptive they were and how bad it was. How can you disrupt a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah at the Kotel? It’s supposed to be a mitzvah!” said the father of the other bar mitzvah boy, who asked not to be named, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
“This is what the Nazis would do — and they called us Nazis!” he added.
Liz Goodman, the wife of the rabbi who officiated Mann’s bar mitzvah, was similarly appalled.
“Orthodoxy is not okay if they can’t control these kids. I understand that they hate us but they shouldn’t be able to do what they did,” she said.
The mostly but not exclusively ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, demonstrators had not necessarily arrived at the Western Wall that day just to disrupt these three services.
It is far more likely that they were there to protest against the Women of the Wall, a feminist group that holds female-led services at the Western Wall at the start of every Hebrew month, a holiday known as Rosh Hodesh. Last Thursday was one of these, the start of the month of Tammuz, and as occurs every month, busloads of ultra-Orthodox boys and girls, men and women, mostly from religious seminaries, were sent to the Western Wall to confront them.
These sometimes violent protests are often organized by an extremely conservative Orthodox group known as the Liba Center. The young demonstrators arrive with signs and whistles, along with coaching about what activities will and won’t lead to their detention or arrest by police.
This monthly ritual of vitriol and violence typically starts and ends at the Western Wall’s main plaza, where the Women of the Wall hold their protest/prayer service.
For whatever reason, on Thursday, some of the extremist youths decided to spread the protest further, to the egalitarian section, also known as the “Israel section,” the “family section,” the “southern section,” or — inaccurately — the “Reform section.” It is also sometimes called “Robinson’s Arch,” for the archway that once stood above it leading to the Temple Mount that was identified by Biblical scholar Edward Robinson.
The egalitarian section is, in fact, administered by the Masorti Movement, the Israeli equivalent of the North American Conservative Movement, and as it happens all three of the ceremonies taking place that day were officiated by Conservative rabbis.
The head of the Liba Center, however, said the protesters at the egalitarian section had not been brought to the Western Wall by his organization.
“There’s no connection between those guys and the Liba Center,” the group’s director, Oren Henig, told The Times of Israel.
The group comprised roughly 50 teenage boys and young men, many of them Haredi but some Haredi-Leumi, or Hardal. One of the main instigators was the son of United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus, who has himself boasted of organizing protests against Women of the Wall. Pindrus’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Henig said he did not support the violence that took place in the egalitarian section, but added that he entirely understood the protesters’ motivations. He also acknowledged that sometimes his group does demonstrate there, referring to these protests as “prayer services.”
To Henig — and to the protesters and their supporters — mixed-gender services represent a major affront to the sanctity of the Western Wall and they are therefore justified in doing everything possible to prevent them. “The southern section is part of the Western Wall. There should not be mixed-gender services there. It harms the holiness of the place,” Henig said.
“There’s no connection between [the protesters] and the Liba Center, but these are people who care, whom it hurts, whom it bothers,” he said.
Henig’s beliefs are not universally held among Orthodox Jews — indeed some leading rabbis have explicitly called for the egalitarian section to be respected or at least ignored — but fierce opposition to Reform and Conservative Jews and Judaism is not entirely unheard of among large swaths of Israel’s Orthodox and Haredi population.
Rabbi Perry Netter, the Israel-based Conservative rabbi who officiated the bat mitzvah at the egalitarian section last Thursday, said he believed that the protesters truly felt that they were acting in accordance with God’s will.
“They weren’t just hooligans, even though they behaved that way. They believe they were warriors fighting a cosmic battle,” he said.
Netter blamed this type of behavior on a “fetishizing” of the Western Wall, which he noted was not part of the Jewish temple but was part of a retaining wall built beneath it by Herod. “It held dirt!” he said, exasperated.
The egalitarian section does not regularly see this type of protest, though it certainly has on some occasions — including last summer when a service held on the Tisha B’Av day of mourning, which commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples, was overrun by a group from the Liba Center. (Henig acknowledged that this was a “misstep” and said there were no plans to “fight with” progressive Jews at the site during the same annual commemoration next month, but he did not dismiss the possibility of going there.)
Though the site doesn’t normally see aggressive protests, it is regularly taken over by Orthodox Jews, some of them from the Liba Center, who install dividers to separate men from women in contravention of the customs at the egalitarian space.
Earlier this year, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett told Reform and Conservative leaders that he would improve the facilities at the egalitarian section. So far this promises has not been fulfilled, much to the consternation of those movements. The long-stalled Western Wall compromise, which would grant non-Orthodox streams of Judaism an official voice in the management of the holy site, still remains frozen as well.
‘At least we avoided the heat’
None of the families and guests who were at the egalitarian section on Thursday anticipated their kids’ coming-of-age ceremonies would be attacked by extremists. They also didn’t expect the police to permit these attacks, which they did as can be seen in the ample video footage from the scene. And they further lamented the fact that the incident passed without major interest by the Israeli press and by most Israeli lawmakers.
“If these were Arabs, it would have been headline news,” said the father of one of the bar mitzvah boys, who asked that the family not be identified by name.
“I don’t understand — and don’t think I ever will — how this type of activity is acceptable and how it’s not being addressed,” he added.
He and his wife said they knew there was a possibility of protests because of the Women of the Wall service planned for the same day, but hoped that by having the service early in the morning they would be spared conflict.
“It’s not that we didn’t know there wasn’t a chance, but we were hoping that since we had the first time block, we’d avoid the protesters and the heat,” the boy’s mother told The Times of Israel, adding with a chuckle. “At least we avoided the heat.”
The father, who was born and raised in Israel and now lives in Virginia, said he was shocked by the level of violence and hatred expressed that day.
Videos from the egalitarian section that morning show the mostly teenage extremists calling the worshipers “Nazis,” “Christians,” “animals,” “shiksas” (a derogatory slur for non-Jewish women), and — to the great confusion of those present — “Reform Jews.”
“They kept yelling at us, ‘Reformim.’ I didn’t understand why they were calling us that. We’re Conservative!” Goodman, whose husband officiated the Mann bar mitzvah, told The Times of Israel.
In addition to the signs, epithets, whistles and shouting, there were occasional instances of physical violence directed toward people and property. The grandfather of one of the bar mitzvah boys — a Holocaust survivor — had a cane taken away and thrown over the side of the balcony. One of the tables used for the prayer services was damaged, and in one case a set of tefillin was thrown on the floor, according to Goodman.
“They were intentionally not getting physical; it was specifically verbal, just making noise. The point was to disrupt but not create a physical situation where the police would get involved,” said the mother of the other bar mitzvah boy.
In one case, a set of prayer books were torn apart. In a video shared by the Masorti Movement, one of the ultra-Orthodox boys is seen taking a ripped page and wiping his nose with it.
We saw Israel at its lowest, at the holiest place for Jews,” said the father.
Henig did not denounce this desecration of the prayer books, but said there was “no good reason” to do so.
Though the bar mitzva boy’s family lived in the US, the rest of the guests came from Israel, mostly from secular backgrounds. The boy’s father said they too were shocked by the level of aggression and by the unwillingness of police to intervene.
“The police did nothing. They didn’t just not remove them; they didn’t even protect the people who were there. We were lucky that we were reserved enough that we didn’t start hitting these guys, but it could have escalated very quickly,” the father said.
Netter, an Israel-based rabbi who officiated the bat mitzvah, was also struck by the inaction of the police.
“There was maybe a handful of police officers, a few border guards. There was not enough security, and they didn’t touch [the protesters] unless they got violent, and when they did, they just pushed them down the ramp and left them there to come back again,” Netter told The Times of Israel.
Yizhar Hess, the former head of the Masorti Movement in Israel and current vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, was present at the last major protest by Orthodox activists at the site.
Hess said police officers in these cases are generally reluctant to act against protesters. In part, according to Hess, this is because this type of mostly nonviolent demonstration lies in something of a legal gray area, but there is also a lack of clear guidance and political will.
“On the one hand, the current guidelines do not allow the police to act. So you can go in there and do whatever you are permitted 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 guidelines,” Hess said.
Though there were a few articles written in the local press when the video of a boy wiping his nose with a siddur came to light, the incident largely passed unnoticed in Israel.
Two ministers — Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel — and a Knesset member, Alon Tal, who is a member of the Masorti Movement, wrote tweets condemning the protests against the egalitarian prayers, but no other government officials made public statements.
A bad first impression
For some of those in attendance, this was their first time in Israel and likely their first time encountering this type of pushback for belonging to a non-Orthodox stream of Judaism.
Goodman lamented that this type of experience makes the work of getting people to feel closer to Judaism and to support Israel more difficult.
“We try to get people to love Judaism. That’s why my husband became a rabbi. What happened there was just horrible,” she said. “It was unreal, unbelievable. It was so, so embarrassing.”
Henig, who reiterated his group’s lack of connection to the protesters, said the humiliation suffered by the worshipers was not his primary concern.
“Their services don’t humiliate the Holy One Blessed Be He? They don’t humiliate the Western Wall? They don’t humiliate the Jewish people?” he said.
“Looking at it from the perspective of the kid… if it causes the kid mental anguish, I would really try to get through to his heart and to understand him. But it’s not right to have mixed-gender bar mitzvah services at the Western Wall,” he said.
‘Calm and dignified’
All three kids were unanimously praised by those present for their aplomb and perseverance.
Seth made it through his Torah reading despite the whistles and screams. He also made it through his speech, rushing a bit and shouting over the din, but reading it all nevertheless.
Netter too was awed by the bat mitzvah girl’s poise throughout the ordeal and her precision in her Torah reading. The Times of Israel was unable to reach her family for comment.
“She was calm. She was dignified, not unnerved in the slightest by what was going on. The family said, ‘We’re not going to let them stop what we came here to do,’” Netter said.
“This girl nailed the Torah reading. She was perfect, letter and tune. Every trop was right,” he said, using the Yiddish term for cantillations.
The parents from Virginia were similarly impressed by their son’s determination and focus.
“Ultimately, he wasn’t fazed and he read from the Torah. He showed great character. It didn’t break him down. We want to focus on how hard he prepared and how well he did,” said the mother from Virginia.
“If he made it through his bar mitzvah there, there’s nothing that can stop him,” she added. PJC