President, FM pan Orthodox storming of egalitarian plaza during Tisha B’Av eve

The president, foreign minister and several other officials condemned on Sunday the disruption of a Tisha B’Av prayer service, held by the Conservative Movement at the pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall, by far-right Orthodox Jews.

“On the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, a group of extremists decided to desecrate the holiness of the day and the holiness of the place and start a violent struggle at the Kotel,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted Sunday, using the Hebrew word for the Western Wall.

“That’s the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Temple and our exile,” he added.

The prayer service on Saturday night — held in an area separate from the main Western Wall plaza that has been set aside for pluralistic prayer — was to mark the arrival of Tisha B’Av, a day where Jews mourn the destruction of the two Jewish temples that stood on the Temple Mount thousands of years ago. The fast began on Saturday evening and lasts for 25 hours.

Worshipers were reading from the Book of Lamentations when the activists, mostly teenagers, entered the site, cursing and screaming at the worshipers before installing a partition to segregate the area by gender.

Video from the scene showed Conservative leaders pleading with the youths to respect the sanctity of the site and the day, but to no avail.

“We won’t let them destroy the Kotel, destroy Israeli society or destroy our relations with the Jewish world. The Kotel belongs to every stream of Judaism and it will be a place where every Jew feels at home,” Lapid said.

President Isaac Herzog said he was very saddened to see what had occurred at the plaza. “There is no reason to interrupt prayers at that plaza,” he said.

Yizhar Hess, former executive director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism Movement in Israel, also denounced Saturday’s incident as “baseless hatred.”

“They deliberately chose the evening of Tisha B’Av to incite — they are not interested in neither discourse nor compromise,” Hess told Army Radio on Sunday.

Labor party MK Gilad Kariv, the first reform rabbi to serve in the Knesset, who was at the scene of the incident, condemned the youths.

“For them, I weep,” Kariv tweeted. “Shouts and curses and then songs of devotion to Jerusalem. This is what senseless hatred looks like under the guise of God’s love.”

Jewish tradition teaches that the temples were destroyed due to senseless hatred between Jews, among other reasons.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder also slammed the incident.

“I am beyond appalled and dismayed by the baseless hatred demonstrated by a group of extremist Orthodox zealots who disrupted the lawful Tisha B’Av service conducted by Conservative Jews at the section of the Western Wall set aside for egalitarian prayer,” Lauder said.

“The non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are every bit as legitimate as the Orthodox. If not unequivocally condemned by the Israeli government, this latest provocation will only drive a further wedge between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said, calling on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid to take action.

View of construction work at the pluralistic prayer plaza, in Jerusalem’s Old City on January 20, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Ha’aretz daily reported that the Orthodox Jews were from an organization called Liba, which has been holding daily events at the site in a bid to torpedo plans by the new government to fully implement a long-frozen deal to expand the plaza.

The plan was frozen by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017 due to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who refused any move that could be seen as legitimizing pluralistic Judaism.

The plan would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to the current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving all major streams of Judaism.

The original plan included three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council made up of representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government representatives that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

The original decision to build a new pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016, when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise.

Orthodox Jewish men pray and read from the book of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 17, 2021, during the annual Tisha B’Av prayers. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu, facing intense pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, froze the plan. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.

A remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Western Wall has been honored by Jews for thousands of years as a place of pilgrimage and prayer. But, while anyone can access the wall, and the prayer plaza it backs on to, the site is managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which imposes Orthodox practices on worshipers, separating men and women and prohibiting egalitarian prayer services.

The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current mainstream Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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