JERUSALEM (JTA) — Rabbi Rick Jacobs and other Reform Jewish leaders clashed with security guards as they tried to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The guards and haredi Orthodox worshippers tussled with the group Thursday as it entered the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls. Reform leaders accused the haredi administration of the holy site, which employs the guards, of denying their right to freedom of prayer.
Israeli Reform chief Gilad Kariv, speaking to Israel’s Hadashot news, accused the administration of acting like “thugs” and said the violence “will not stop us from fulfilling our right to pray at the Western Wall.”
Kariv and others saw Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, being manhandled and threatened by guards, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
“Many of those holding Torah scrolls were hit and punched by the guards,” Kariv said. “I saw Rabbi Rick Jacobs taking the brunt of the blows.”
The group included the entire board of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which had just ordained four new rabbis, and members of the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group.
Western Wall administrators accused the non-Orthodox Jews of flouting the rules of the prayer plaza “with the aim of creating a provocation and using it to push public relations.”
“This provocative act at the Western Wall plaza, a place of unity, was a physically and verbally violent campaign at the site,” the Western Wall Heritage Foundation said in a statement. “We protest this unacceptable behavior, the violence, and strongly condemn it.”
The brief fracas caused no injuries. In the end, the group broke through the guards and held a service in the plaza.
The Western Wall prayer plaza, administered by the Heritage Foundation, requires men and women to pray separately and bars women from using religious items, including Torah scrolls. It prohibits visitors from bringing their own Torah scrolls in an attempt to prevent women and non-Orthodox Jewish groups from using them in services at the site.
The non-Orthodox groups have repeatedly challenged the rules at the site, leading to sometimes violent confrontations. They have also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for backing out in June from a 2016 agreement to expand and upgrade an egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall. The haredi parties in the governing coalition had demanded the move.
At the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly Monday in Los Angeles, the board of trustees passed a resolution calling on Israel to reverse its “divisive and damaging” steps to freeze the Western Wall deal.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu addressed the controversy in a speech at the closing session of the conference.
“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” he said. “I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer at the [Western Wall].”