Bottles fly at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall

Ultra-Orthodox men harass praying women as Barak tries to assemble a government.

Published May 21, 1999 8:30AM (EDT)

As dawn broke Friday on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, illuminating thousands of worshipers praying at the Wailing Wall, a small congregation of Conservative men and women were just finishing the Torah reading, protected by three dozen armed police and a double line of metal barricades from several hundred ultra-Orthodox young men. Then, from somewhere in the fundamentalists' ranks, a plastic bottle of cola took flight, tumbling end over end through the bluish sky. Seconds later, the missile struck what its launcher surely would have considered a bull's-eye -- the cheek of a woman named Toby, a Jewish-studies teacher who had led part of the service.

As Toby collapsed in a heap on the limestone plaza, a second bottle arrived. It, too, found an appropriate target, striking a congregant named Shira flush on the forehead, a few inches from her yarmulke. Shira recovered the bottle, this one containing orange soda provided by yeshivas to their students as part of a box lunch. Clutching it in her fist, she stalked to the barricades and began shouting at the nearest boys. "What are you doing with a yarmulke on?" one shot back in English.

Shira retreated to apply an ice pack, as Toby groped her way to her feet and into a friend's embrace. The service proceeded, with a woman chanting the Haftorah, the reading from the Prophets. The assault proceeded, too, with more bottles and a few bags of rugelach pastry, accompanied by a song whose Hebrew words translate as "You're desecrating the mitzvah [commandment] place."

As Ehud Barak prepares to assemble a new government, the clash at the Wailing Wall underscored the religious divisions he must try to bridge to govern more successfully than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Wall is so central to Israeli civil life that Netanyahu prayed there the morning of last Monday's election; Barak did the same the morning after his victory. Precisely because the Wall is the holiest site in Judaism, it has been the setting for repeated confrontations between non-Orthodox congregations, which permit women to fully participate in worship services, and the ultra-Orthodox known as haredim, who consider such practice to be blasphemy. Friday's showdown follows even more vicious ones last year on Shavuot and in 1997 on both Shavuot and Tisha b'Av, the date of fasting and mourning for the destruction of both temples. At the worst, haredim threw feces and urine on the egalitarian worshipers.

These events resonate in profound and profoundly different ways in Israel and America. For Jews in the United States, more than 90 percent of whom are not Orthodox, the attacks at the Wall have become emblems of their illegitimacy in Orthodox eyes. But in Israel, the struggle at the Wall means relatively little in terms of conflict between the branches of Judaism. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements represent only a small fraction of Israelis, who tend to identify as either Orthodox or secular.

What does matter enormously in Israel is the relationship of religion and state. Orthodox control of the Wall galls liberal Israelis as a symbol of overreaching religious power in the state. In exchange for the religious establishment's support for Zionism, Israel's secular founding fathers guaranteed the Orthodox rabbinate dominion over many areas of civic life. What the secular leaders never anticipated was that the haredim -- who had opposed Zionism because they believed only the Messiah could restore Israel -- would not only emigrate by the hundreds of thousands but would come to dominate religious life here. So while secular Israelis may not speak with nearly the outrage of American Jews about the assaults on mixed-gender worshipers, they complain vociferously about the Orthodox monopoly over marriage, burial and even the public-transportation schedule.

And these issues played out quietly but unmistakably in the recent election. In a campaign otherwise notable for its caution, Barak raised the issue of separating church and state by proposing to end the military exemption for yeshiva students. And though Barak never raised it directly, the influence of religious parties in Netanyahu's coalition polarized the electorate. The anti-religious Shinui party, until now a flyspeck in Israeli politics, led its parliamentary ticket with an especially caustic commentator named Tommy Lapid, who is sort of a cross between Don Imus and Madeline Murray O'Hair. It won six seats of the 120 in the Knesset, enough for it to press for inclusion in Barak's ruling coalition. On the right, meanwhile, the relatively secular Likud Party lost seats, while the intensely religious Sephardic party, Shas, whose leaders claim the endorsement of rabbis both living and dead, leaped from 10 seats to 17. It, like Shinui, could end up in Barak's government.

But those partners are mutually exclusive, and the rancor at the Wall on Shavuot helps explain why, for it revealed the chasm that still separates the traditional Israeli conflation of church and state from the American-style separation that liberals here now seek. The confrontation simply displayed the divide in a particularly crude way.

For the first hour of the Conservative service, which began by Jewish custom before sunrise, the scene was markedly tranquil. While the vast majority of worshipers filled the plaza and amicably separated themselves by gender, the Conservative congregation occupied a distant corner under police protection. The only heckling came from a few haredi boys. One gave the finger to the Conservative worshipers. Another hooted until he got congregants' attention. "Why are you looking up," he then taunted, "when you're supposed to be praying?"

Gradually, as if bored, the haredi crowd around the barricades thinned from three deep to one, even showing a few gaps. But as the service neared the Torah reading, the level of derision rose again, and the sound of ridicule attracted the claque.

It was no longer just children, or just haredim, who led the catcalls. A young man in his early 20s -- without sidelocks or fedora, and wearing a double-breasted suit -- began shouting in English from the perimeter. "Are gorillas accepted by your conversions?" he asked. "At a homosexual wedding, who gives the ring to whom?"

Soon after that, the bottles began to fly. Every time one landed, the haredim cheered. And when the police waded into the crowd to grab assailants, the crowd cried, "Why are you taking civilians?" Some of the haredim ran deep into the throngs on the plaza, and from that safe remove hurled more bottles.

By then, two hours into the Shavuot service, half of the Conservative congregation was facing outward, chanting the liturgy while scanning the air for incoming rounds. The rest huddled tightly together, close to the Torah. Every time a bird swooped low, every time a haredim shouted a fake warning, the worshipers flinched as one. Some of them, trembling, headed for the gate. One young man, speaking flawless English, shouted as they passed, "Go back to Germany. Let the Nazis finish the job."

"Sinat hinam," muttered a man in the Conservative group. The words mean "groundless hatred," and they could not have been more appropriate. Although the Roman army destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Jewish tradition teaches that the calamity was brought on by sinat hanim -- the virtual civil war that pit the original Zealots against the moderate priestly class even as both were supposed to be resisting the Titus' legions. Instead, the Roman conquest began the Jewish Diaspora and the Western Wall did not return to Jewish control until Israeli troops captured the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Through all the morning skirmish, it must be said, the overwhelming majority of the ultra-Orthodox worshipers on the plaza were in no way disturbing the Conservative service. Thousands had walked past the barricaded area while arriving and given the mixed congregation no more than a cursory glance. Yet virtually none of them -- these rabbis and teachers who guide so many aspects of their students' lives -- bothered to intercede in the abuse, to defuse the incipient violence. A single wizened rabbi did walk with police escort along the barricades, pleading with the young men to halt, even disarming one of a soda bottle. And a few yeshiva girls began arguing with the boys, saying, "You're worse than they are." Ignored, several of the girls left in tears.

By the time the Conservative service was moving into its final section, a policeman approached one of the worshipers.

"How much time is left?" he asked in Hebrew.

"Thirty minutes."

"See if the rabbi can hurry it up."

Based on past experience, the rabbi had been hurrying already, omitting the usual repetition of the Amidah section and pushing briskly through the rest of the service. Then the congregation sang "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem. Two years ago, the haredim had booed it. This time, pushed back from the barricades by the police, they didn't respond.

The rabbi put the Torah in an Eddie Bauer duffel bag and shouldered it for the mile-long walk back to the main Conservative synagogue. The rest of the worshipers filed out, guarded by a corridor of police. As one of the Conservative worshipers, a teenager on a study trip from Maryland, passed through the gate, he encountered a haredi boy roughly his age, whom he recognized from the other side of the barricades.

"Hag sameach," the haredi said. Happy holiday.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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