After a few arrests at the Wall (for wearing a tallit, saying Shema out loud etc.), I found myself at the Old City police station this week for another reason. I was pressing charges against a young woman who physically assaulted me. The assault occurred as I was leaving the Kotel area following Women of the Wall’s traditional Rosh Hodesh prayer. My attacker looked to be in her teens, her dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. She spent the morning shouting obscenities that would make her father blush, making lewd gestures, and shoving WOW crew who was documenting the prayer. She’s not alone, but part of a group of harassers. Their point was to silence women’s voices so they are not heard in the men’s section. But violence isn’t righteous. This group of harassers escorted us out of the Western Wall area with in a cacophony of shouts and profanities, ending in a physical assault – first on our prayer leader and then on me.
These scenes of screaming, shouting and spitting at the Western Wall have been going on for months. They’ve escalated ever since the police informed us that they were leaving the task of keeping public order in the hands of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation guards. With this decision, the police has made the Western Wall area exterritorial, much like the Vatican in Rome.
The withdrawal of the police comes at a high price. The Foundation’s guards have no actual tools, nor the will, to deal with the violence. They push us into a barricaded corral and spend the morning playing Candy Crush on their phones, and doing their best to stay out of the conflict, much like a student averts his eyes, trying to avoid being called on by the teacher. Their responses move on a scope between Apathy to Negligence to Blaming the Victim. The result is an escalation in violence: screaming then cursing then spitting and shoving. During Selichot, they threw water bottles at us. Last month they poured hot tea. This week, they nearly broke my wrist.
The police is an authority we as citizens have formed in order to protect law, order and public safety. Its job is to be present and guard from hostility, intimidation and violence. Yet at the Western Wall, they avoid these duties, abandoning us to our fate.
My attacker is a teen, but old enough to know better, and perhaps she would have known if the police took charge. We all learn from experience. And this harasser learned that she can whistle, and shout with no consequences. She can spit and shove and no one removes her from the scene. She can grab another woman and then another, twist arms and the police still do nothing.
When I look at this group of harassers, some of whom are braver now and lift the scarves off their faces, I see a group of directionless young criminals. I feel like I’m in a Charles Dickens novel where young people are manipulated by greedy, heartless grown-ups. For their sakes, and for ours, I pray for a responsible adult. The one that will metaphorically say “The buck stops here”, and restore a sense of dignity to these women, to our prayer, and to the Western Wall.
Until that happens, we refuse to stay silent. We can’t risk serious injury at the Wall, and at the rate violence is intensifying, we will be hauled off in an ambulance by next Rosh Hodesh. We call on PM Netanyahu to ensure our personal safety and our freedom of religion.
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