Jerusalem—Violence at the Kotel by a few dozen Haredi men drew attention from a massive, polite protest on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, May 10th that brought thousands of Haredi and dati leumi women to the Kotel under the auspices of a group called Women 4 Wall.
The mass gathering was triggered a few weeks ago when the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a decision that, for the first time in 24 years, permitted women to wear talitot and tefillin at the Kotel, as well as allowing them to say Kaddish, without fear of arrest. At first Israel’s attorney general said he would ignore the courts’ ruling, but after a huge negative reaction from Diaspora Jewry and many Israelis, he backed down the next day, and said he would leave it for the Minister of Religious Services, Naftali Bennett, to decide what to do over the next few months.
In a blog post on Times of Israel, Women For The Wall (W4W) founder Ronit Peskin wrote there was a Chillul Hashem caused by 50-75 Haredi men who ignored gedolim and askanim and rioted and attacked and harassed the women indiscriminately, throwing excrement, spitting, and according to Peskin, “jeered and leered” at the women, even those who were not with Anat Hoffman of WoW.
She wrote W4W was the driving force behind the huge gathering at the Kotel because they had arranged, with haredi and dati leumi rabbanim, to pack the Kotel Plaza on that Friday morning to create unity by protesting WoW in peaceful prayer.
In the last few months, Anat Hoffman, WoW leader, had been manhandled, strip-searched and imprisoned by Kotel police for davening with a talit at the group’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service. The arrests were ordered by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the Rabbi of the Kotel, whose rulings were struck down by the Supreme Court decision, the same rabbi now calling for an end to the conflict. The WoW proceeded with their service on Friday, and when it was concluded, sang the Hatikvah as the men around them booed.
According to Ha’aretz, a Peace Index survey indicates that 48 percent of the Jewish public, and 64 percent of secular Israelis support WoW, with the highest percentage of them being American and Europeans who made aliyah. “Some 77 percent of Israelis born in the United States or Europe said they supported the group’s demand to freely pray at the Western Wall, followed by 61 percent of Israelis whose parents were born in U.S. or Europe, 46 percent of Israelis whose parents were born in Israel, 43 percent of Israelis whose parents were born in Asia or Africa, 38 percent of Israelis from the former Soviet Union (38 percent) and 33 percent of Israelis who were born in Asia or Africa.”
Arutz 7, on the Sunday after the riot, reported that Rabbi Rabinovich called for Bennett to do everything he can “to quench the fire of conflict that has seized the Western Wall,” and clarify the regulations regarding the “local custom” that must be upheld at the Kotel.
(For the record, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l paskened decades ago that women were allowed to wear talitot as long as they were not men’s talitot, and that they were permitted to wear tefillin, as long as they were not decorated or otherwise altered to make them look feminine. There are no restrictions on the talitot that men wear. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik said women who wear talitot are arrogant, but did not rule against the wearing of feminine talitot.)
Peskin wrote she worked with askanim and contacted “Rabbi Lerner, in charge of the Young Israel of America, …[and]…he is working for us, and he approached these rabbonim about organizing this.”
It is assumed the reference is to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel. (Among NCYI policies instituted in 2007 under his watch are: Synagogue presidents must be male and Jewish from birth; women’s prayer services are prohibited; and women may no longer read the Megillah during a prayer service.)
Two days before Rosh Chodesh, Yeshiva World reported: “There are different opinions in the frum world surrounding the planned tefilla event, with some of the opinion that the machlokes should be avoided. Others are adamant in their determination to prevent such events from taking place.” They also warned of a large police presence to maintain order and a media circus.
According to The Forward, thousands of youth, most from haredi yeshivot, packed the Kotel Plaza between 6:30 and 6:45 on Friday morning, about 20 minutes before WoW began their regular monthly davening. According to Peskin, the plaza was packed because she and Rabbi Lerner approached Haredi gedolim about what W4W wanted to do at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, and they backed her. They ordered yeshivot to bus in students for Friday morning, male and female—proving she wrote, that they are not misogynists, and respect women—because they listened to her.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteynman, a Lithuanian haredi leader who is against haredi yeshivot teaching secular subjects, called for thousands to come. Peskin wrote on her blog that the rabbanim “added something that wasn’t my original intention. ‘Fill up the space so that WoW can’t get in.’”
The Forward reported that “because haredi Orthodox women had packed the women’s section of the plaza earlier in the morning, WoW were forced to pray in the back section of the plaza, further away from the Wall itself.”
And that, Peskin says was not W4W’s intention at all. Women couldn’t get to the Kotel because of the masses who turned out, and that included WoW. Peskin asked why WoW expected “the police to ‘split the sea’ of women so that WoW should be able to go to the Kotel? … Why should they get special treatment? Why would they be more deserving to pray at the Wall itself than any other woman who came and couldn’t either reach the Kotel?”
She did not name them, but added that “politicians” were pleased, “that our side would be given more consideration when drafting the new laws, specifically because of what happened today.”
As for the violence, she seemed shocked by it. She blogged she counted about 50-75 “troublemakers.” She demanded they stop creating a chillul Hashem and go daven, and they laughed in her face. She was stunned that they ignored the gedolim’s plea to maintain order, and stood “in the ring protected by the police, together with WoW, their supporters, Women FOR the Wall heads and askonim, The Rav of the Kotel, and a whole bunch of media” and wrote, “I got sewage or spit or something thrown onto me by chareidi [sic] guys at least three times. I mean, it wasn’t directed at me, but at everyone there, and I got covered in it.”
She added that W4W “specifically did not involve guys because this is an issue for WOMEN to deal with amongst themselves. And because guys often have too much testosterone causing them to act aggressively, we didn’t want any aggression today!”
Peskin described how rabbis working with W4W tried to stop the violence without success, and how the police took women who were from her protest and used them as a shield to protect WoW. She wrote, “Poof! No more violence. So the women who came to daven at the Kotel ended up protecting the women they came to protest!”
On the Monday after Rosh Chodesh, Anat Hoffman sent out the Israel Religious Action Center newsletter, which represents Progressive Judaism in Israel. In it, she described how the davening went on Friday, and wrote that “The court ruling, along with the Sharansky plan to create a third and equal section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, is the correct formula for respecting the rights and feelings of all Jews. This process needs the support of us all. ...Bennett ... is now planning to impose more regulations against women praying at the Wall. He is threatening unilateral actions that would all but stop the Scharansky process and reverse the Sobel ruling,”