The Western Wall and its surrounding plaza is currently managed by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The area, in the heart of the Old City, is divided according to gender. Women are not permitted to read aloud from the Torah, or wear prayer shawls or sing there. Joint services with men and women together are also not allowed and bringing in Torah scrolls from outside is forbidden.
In 2016, under pressure from non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, including the Reform and Conservative denominations prevalent in the United States, Netanyahu’s government agreed on a plan dividing the area into three parts, allowing space for those Jewish groups.
“It’s a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people,” said the Israeli prime minister at the time.
In June, however, following dissension from ultra-Orthodox members of his government, Netanyahu reneged on the deal, a move that left many American Jews feeling insulted and abandoned by Israel’s ruling coalition.
An official from the prime minister’s office told The Washington Post at the time that the plan had been frozen in an attempt to find a solution workable for all the sides.
Netanyahu reiterated this during a video address this week to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. He said the plan had been suspended to examine “the more ideologically charged elements of the Western Wall Plan.”
On Friday, Netanyahu's spokesman David Keyes said the prime minister is still committed to engaging with all sides to "ensure that all Jews feel at home at the Western Wall."
"The issue of prayer arrangements can be resolved only through dialogue and compromise, rather than through the sides demonizing and provoking each other," he said.
“North American Jews see this as a betrayal,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in 900 synagogues in the United States and Canada.
He was among those carrying Torah scroll on Thursday. Security guards threatened to spray him with Mace, he said.
The group, which had been celebrating the ordaining of Israel’s 100th reform rabbi, had been holding services at another area next to the wall, known as Robinson’s Arch. For the past few years, Reform Jews have prayed at the arch but, the movement argues, that space was meant to have been temporary. It is hidden from public view and gives the impression that reform Judaism is less important, they say.
“We wanted to remind our leaders and the world we will not have an out of the way second rate place, so we brought eight Torah scrolls up to the upper part of the plaza that is supposed to be open to the public,” said Jacobs.
Eventually, the group pushed past the security guards and held their services.
“The unfortunate reality is that instead of drawing Diaspora Jews closer to Israel, which is in everyone’s interest, this is pushing us further away,” he said. “People are agitated, yesterday we saw the real face of this government’s policy.”
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said in a statement following the incident that the group had purposely acted in a provocative manner to gain media attention.
“As soon as the management of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation understood that the group was using physical force to enter the area, it exercised discretion and responsibility to prevent bloodshed and the group unfortunately were able to enter the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls,” said the foundation in the statement.
According to a 2016 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than half of American Jews identify themselves as either Reform or Conservative, while only about 10 percent observe Orthodox practices. In contrast, only a small minority of Israelis is affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Rabbi Rick Jacobs in which he said: “The prime minister says North American Jews are not upset by this but they are, people are agitated, yesterday we saw the real face of this government’s policy.” A spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu said no such comment had been made by the prime minister.