Thousands of haredi Orthodox youth packed the Western Wall Plaza on May 10 to protest a Women of the Wall’s service there.
With police assistance, the 100 or so Women of the Wall members and their supporters were able to conduct a prayer service. But the protest showed how effective haredi mobilization can be. Within days, haredi activists and leading rabbis got thousands of students to turn up at the plaza at 6:40 a.m. Their numbers far overshadowed the Women of the Wall contingent.
While most haredim did not engage in violence of any kind, loud chants arose from across the plaza, and a few dozen male haredi youths tried a few times to storm the police barricade, throwing water, coffee and even a chair at police, journalists and the worshippers.
This may be a taste of what’s to come as the Israeli haredi community responds to what it views as attacks on its way of life.
Haredi political parties long have been effective in preserving state subsidies for their communities, a blanket exemption from the country’s military draft and Orthodox dominance of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. But as haredi power comes under sustained assault, and the community stands to lose those privileges, haredim could turn to what may be their greatest asset: mobilizing the rank-and-file.
Haredim generally stand united behind their leading rabbis and follow their direction. Israel’s haredi sector has turned out en masse, and sometimes on short notice, to protest everything from the Shabbat operation of a parking lot to an end to the draft exemption. Such protests may not succeed in stopping the reforms now under consideration, but they do constitute a stark warning to legislators contemplating changes to the status quo and may give haredi leaders more ammunition to block those changes.
A potential pitfall — or source of power, depending on one’s view — is the minority who engage in violence. Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of Women for the Wall, a traditionalist group that opposes change at the Western Wall, was quick to say that her group does not support acts of violence, calling rabble rousers “a small group of hot-hats who have nothing to do except scream.”
Aharoni declined to give specifics about her group beyond that “a few women” had gotten together a couple of weeks ago to mobilize against changes at the Kotel. Her vision for Judaism’s holiest site is that of a quiet space where people pray according to Orthodox norms, not a “free-for-all.”
“Thousands of people come to pray in a certain way,” she said. “There’s decorum in every public place.”
Aharoni is unsure what exactly her group will do in the weeks ahead, but she says she hopes to mobilize women to come out during the next Women of the Wall service.