Women of the Wall, the group agitating for women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall, said it feared a violent encounter with ultra-Orthodox protesters at its upcoming regular monthly prayer service after it was told that the group’s protection falls not to the police but to the ushers who help administer the site.
WOW founder Anat Hoffman and Orly Erez-Likhovski, the group’s lawyer, said they met with Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevy on Tuesday, August 30 to discuss safety measures to protect WOW at the upcoming Rosh Hodesh prayer service which marks the beginning of the month.
Hoffman and Erez-Likhovski said that Halevy told them that it is the role of the ushers, not the police, to protect WOW. The ushers are employed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a group in conflict with WOW over its activism for gender equality at the Jewish holy site.
Israel’s police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that police at the Western Wall are there to protect everyone at the site. He would not comment on the meeting between Halevy and WOW.
“Police units are there 24/7 in order to make sure there are no incidents,” he said.
He said that site’s ushers are responsible for handing out Jewish prayer books and skullcaps and enforcing the site’s dress code, not security.
“The police units make sure there is no tension or friction,” he said.
WOW requested the meeting to express concerns about police behavior at the last prayer service in early August, where hecklers blew whistles at their service for more than an hour, seeking to disrupt it. A WOW member also threw a water bottle at a heckler.
According to news reports, a few ushers tried unsuccessfully to move the hecklers away from the WOW service, while the police stood at the sidelines.
The police “didn’t do anything,” said Erez-Likhovski. She said that the police’s lack of interference in ultra-Orthodox protests against WOW a “new phenomenon.”
“The dramatic shift in the policy of the police has actually opened the door for the bullies to deal with Women of the Wall,” said Hoffman.
Halevy became Jerusalem’s new police chief in January 2016.
A request for comment from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation was not answered by deadline.
WOW is challenging the ban on certain kinds of female prayer at the site, such as reading from the Torah. In January, the Israeli government approved the creation of an egalitarian plaza south of the traditional Western Wall that would have put WOW’s claims to rest. (Another group, calling itself Original Women of the Wall, vowed to continue fighting for equal female prayer rights at the traditional site.)
The creation of the egalitarian plaza stalled after ultra-Orthodox parties protested its implementation, leading to a stalemate over the Western Wall.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.