Jerusalem — The Women of the Wall experienced “a first” on Monday morning, the first day of the month of Av, but not one to their liking.
For the first time in its almost 25-year history, the pluralistic women’s prayer group was physically barred from praying at the Wall. When the group of 350 entered the far end of the plaza under police escort on Rosh Chodesh morning, the police corralled them into an area just past the entrance, often used as a parking lot, surrounded by barricades.
The Kotel (Wall) was barely visible.
While the cordoned-off space, reinforced by about 200 police personnel, separated the WOW activists from the many protesters shouting just beyond the barricades, it failed to protect them from the wrath of the crowd.
A couple thousand haredi demonstrators were on the scene, hundreds of them shouting words like “Nazi” and “Reform Jew,” as if they were interchangeable. The police looked on as two older women stood against the barricade and blew ear-splitting whistles in an attempt to disrupt the prayer service.
A handful of the demonstrators threw raw eggs and bags filled with water.
A police spokeswoman on the scene said the police decided to steer WOW away from the Kotel — despite a recent ruling that WOW may pray at the Kotel wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, if they wish — because the Kotel was already filled to capacity by seminary girls.
The police could not ensure WOW’s safety in the plaza, the spokeswoman said.
Asked why the police had permitted WOW to pray in the plaza, just outside the women’s section, two months ago but not today, the spokeswoman replied, “The situation changes from month to month.”
Knowing that WOW holds its prayer service at 7 a.m., prominent rabbis had called on Orthodox seminary girls, who are on summer vacation, to show up at the Kotel at 6:30 a.m.
WOW organizers insisted there was enough room to accommodate the group in the plaza, if not the back of the women’s section, where they have prayed once a month for the past two-and-a-half decades.
WOW members and their supporters said they were deeply disappointed by the police’s decision to bar them from the Kotel, given the court’s ruling and the police department’s determined efforts to ensure WOW’s rights the past couple of months.
Standing in the cordoned-off area following their prayer service, WOW Director Leslie Sachs said she was “almost in tears.”
“We’re locked behind barricades in what is essentially a parking lot, even though there was plenty of room on the plaza. The people who should be cordoned off are the people holding signs, shouting obscenities and blowing whistles, not us,” she said.
In a prepared statement sent out later in the morning, Sachs said the police had “yielded to haredi bullying and put us in the back of the bus.”
In the same statement, Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman, said the police “broke the rules” and “failed to uphold our [verbal] agreement, by which as long as we adhere to the security guidelines they are supposed to ensure that we are able to pray safely next to the Western Wall.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, said he believes that the police were under orders to do the bare minimum to ensure WOW’s safety but nothing more.
“I have no doubt that the police and the haredi leadership have struck a deal from preventing WOW from accessing the Wall to conduct services,” Kariv said amid the tumult. “I believe the police are engaged in revenge after WOW won the legal battle.”
Whatever the reason, WOW members and some of the many journalists who accompanied them felt the police could have done more to control the mob.
Soon after arriving at the barricades but before going to the WOW side, this reporter was shoved by a screaming yeshiva student she was photographing. A moment later an older haredi woman hit this reporter’s arm, hard, three times before the police intervened by pushing the student away and forcing the reporter behind the barricade.
Once on WOW’s side of the fence, men shouted at the reporter to “follow your priest or sheikh,” insinuating that anyone on that side of the barrier could not be Jewish. They raged and taunted, calling the reporter and the other women “Reform Jews,” as if it was a curse. She was splattered by a raw egg.
Instead of creating a secure space between the haredi protesters and the barricades, the police allowed the protesters to come within spitting distance. But the police didn’t allow WOW participants to place a note between the Kotel stones.
In a blog post, Rabbi Ilana Rosansky a WOW participant, related how she had begged one of the haredi women on the other side of the barrier to deliver her kvitel (prayer) to the Kotel, on behalf of a friend who was undergoing a cancer operation.
“They not only spurned my request, but they cursed me (on Rosh Chodesh Av!!!). They cursed my friend. They said things like: ‘It’s your fault’, ‘She deserves it’, ‘May she ___ from cancer’ [God forbid] and so on. These were deep and emotionally laden responses.”
Anat Hoffman said that next Rosh Hodesh, WOW may decide to go to the Kotel without police protection.
“While I’m delighted that Orthodox girls are now coming to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh” because of WOW, “that doesn’t mean we have to pray in the parking lot,” she said.