Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked leading American rabbis who marched with hundreds of supporters to the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls to protest the government’s foot-dragging on creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site.
Calling the march a “unilateral violation,” Netanyahu said that the American leaders’ action “undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise” over the egalitarian prayer space which his government approved in January but has so far failed to implement.
The march has put Netanyahu in the uncomfortable position of confronting some of Israel’s most ardent American supporters for taking a stand on the Israeli site precious to Jews across the world.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, one of the leaders of the protest, said that the march was a turning point in the battle over the egalitarian prayer space, saying that American Jews were sick of waiting for the government to implement the plan it already agreed to.
“Sometimes you have to pray with your feet and take a stand,” said Jacobs. “The idea that we should quietly wait for everything to be resolved is not the only strategy.”
The November 2 march amounted to an unprecedented act of civil disobedience at the Western Wall. Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Steve Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, were among the American leaders who marched eight Torah scrolls to the women’s section.
They did so in violation of a local regulation against worshippers bringing their own Torah scrolls to the site. The rabbis were joined by hundreds of Israeli supporters from Conservative and Reform congregations.
According to news reports, security guards pushed and in some cases punched the participants to stop their progress to the Western Wall. Young ultra-Orthodox protesters attacked the marchers as the police stood by. Haaretz reported that Yitzhar Hess, the head of the Conservative Movement in Israel, was shoved to the ground. There were no arrests made.
Anat Hoffman, the founder of the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group that has been agitating for gender parity at the Western Wall for decades, called the march a “tipping point.”
“These people represent millions of Jews around the world,” she said of the Reform and Conservative leaders.
The egalitarian leaders said that there could be more such marches if the egalitarian prayer space is not brought to fruition. Their groups have also plead their issue with the Israeli High Court, petitioning it to force the government to uphold its plan for a third section or redivide the existing two sections to make room for the egalitarian space. In September the High Court scolded the government for its foot-dragging on a hearing on a related 2013 case.
The government approved the egalitarian space in a southern area of the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch last January after three years of negotiations with progressive movements and the ultra-Orthodox. But Netanyahu has thus far failed to implement the plan amid protest from the ultra-Orthodox street.
Despite Netanyahu’s angry reaction, some analysts predicted the prominence of the protesters might force him to cave to their demands.
“He will now realize that he will have to confront American leaders on the ground in the kotel, and they will go back home and tell their communities about their experiences,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on religion and state at the Israel Democracy Institute. “It could push him to implement it.”
Friedman said that there is no chance that the ultra-Orthodox will back down from their protest against the plan for the egalitarian prayer space, saying the have “no motivation to compromise” unless Netanyhau promises them a “political prize” of some sort.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.