It was billed as an “unprecedented act of civil disobedience” in protest of the Israeli government’s failure to implement its own decision to build an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall. On Wednesday morning, the Conservative and Reform Movements in Israel, together with the Women of the Wall, marched on the wall holding Torah scrolls in defiance of the regulations established by the site’s rabbi of the Western Wall, which prohibits visitors from bringing their own Torah scrolls onto the site. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is,” sang the row of rabbis, foreshadowing what was to come, “when brothers to dwell together in unity!”
What followed was ugly: Jews protesting and vilifying other Jews.
The organizers, who announced the protest the night before, expected to be stopped by security before entering the plaza and have their Torah scrolls confiscated. But perhaps because of the sheer size of the advancing crowd, Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and her colleagues managed to force their way in. They immediately fell into an ambush.
Scores of ultra-Orthodox protesters and Western Wall Foundation guards descended on the oncoming crowd. They tried to rip the scrolls from their arms, as the rabbis clung to them and begged them to desist. “Let go of me!” of them cried. Kippot went flying. “Don’t touch her!” yelled another. Tallitot were pulled to the ground. “Give me the scroll! Give me the scroll!”
As hundreds of people wrestled, and the skies filled with curses, I was sure that somebody was going to get seriously hurt. Police appeared to have decided to step back and observe; many of them filmed the whole event.
Across the plaza, as the worst of the melee subsided, Jews split off into pairs to scream at each other. “A woman with a tallit?” one Haredi woman berated an egalitarian-minded counterpart. “You’re retarded, that’s what you are! Poor, miserable things, I pity you. Go pray to Muhammad! You’re crazy, simply sick.”
A German journalist beseeched an American Haredi man, bewildered: “Why, what is the reason?” he asked. “What do you have against them? Why don’t they have a right to pray?” The women are lying when they say they’re praying for women’s right, he explained: Women are allowed to pray at the Kotel every day of the year.
The children were wild. Dozens of Haredi children ran around blowing whistles and claxons to drown out the prayer. I made the mistake of asking one child why he was blowing a whistle, when a horde of youths descended on me and tried to stop me filming. “Why are you filming a minor? Sex offender!” someone shouted AT ME.
Insults abounded. “Nazi!” screeched boys at the women. “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!”
“Why are the women Nazis?” I asked one lout, who could not have been older than 8. “Because they wear tefillin!” he snapped back.
“Goyim!” was another familiar cry. “Go back to America!” one demonstrator shouted. “Go back and assimilate!”
Likewise with “Arab!” in the context of the quip “your behavior is more befitting of Arabs!” and the retort “an Arab is worth more than you.”
Despite the chaos, the women succeeded in holding a Torah service. Not the first, but the first with scrolls they brought in openly instead of smuggling (it isn’t clear how many survived the confiscation attempts—Women of the Wall say eight).
As the swarms of Haredi boys encircled the women, one boy picked up a prayer book and physically ripped it to shreds, throwing it on the floor. One woman picked up the scraps, astonished: “That little boy is ripping up the siddur with the name of God in it.”
Further up the plaza, one man engaged Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform Movement, in a disputation, asking him: “Do you believe the Third Temple will be rebuilt?”
“This country is the Third Temple!” Kariv called back. “So what are you even doing here?” he shouted back at his interlocutor.
The chief rabbi of the Israeli Conservatives interceded: “Yes, there will be a Third Temple,” he elucidated, “But only when the Messiah comes.”
Messiah? What Messiah? He’s crying somewhere in a corner, dying of shame. Messiah is rumored to have joined BDS and cancelled his performance in Israel.
Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.