Guards at the entrance to the Western Wall complex in Jerusalem “strip searched” four female rabbinical students on Wednesday ahead of the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the holy site, liberal Jewish groups said.
The Israel Religious Action Center, which serves as the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, said the four students of Hebrew Union College were delayed and questioned by guards, then were asked to lift up their shirts and skirts. “Four female rabbinical students strip searched while trying to enter the Western Wall Complex,” it declared in a press release.
The director of the IRAC said the searches were “a new low” for the Western Wall rabbinate, which is strongly opposed to the Women of the Wall.
“This is a new low for the Rabbi of the Kotel trying to intimidate, humiliate, and exclude liberal women trying to pray at the Western Wall. Despite today’s events these four brave Jewish leaders will continue to love Israel, the Wall, and justice,” Rabbi Noa Sattath said in a statement, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
“Today we are submitting formal letters of complaint to the Attorney General and the Prime Minister’s office demanding they act to address the events of this morning,” she added.
Women of the Wall said the search of the four women was illegal.
“These searches go against [Supreme Court] Judge Rubinstein’s decision which states that body searches on Women of the Wall are illegal without a serious security threat. A few of these students, who were visiting the Kotel for the first time, were shocked by the incident and the difficult experience imposed on them,” the group said in a statement.
Religious media outlets said the women were smuggling Torah scrolls on their persons, which Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch called a “desecration.”
“Today, the first of the [Jewish] month of Elul, all the red lines were crossed. They smuggled holy Torah schools wrapped around their bodies, they hid whistles in their private parts, and for what? For the “sanctity” of the civil war at the Western Wall,” he said in a statement.
At the prayer service, women read from a Torah scroll and blew 15 shofars, activities that are vehemently opposed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who hold that only men may do these things.
“We sounded the shofar today in order to knock down the walls of apathy, exclusion, silencing and discrimination…We look to the Supreme Court, that has proven itself as the ‘responsible adult’ in the state, to lead to a just solution to our basic demand for equal rights for women at the Wall,” Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman said.
The High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition on the pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall, which was brought by the Women of the Wall after the cabinet voted to freeze the deal in June.
The decision to freeze the agreement coincided with a High Court deadline for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement and construct the mixed-gender plaza near Robinson’s Arch.
It also came amid pressure from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to dial back the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was approved by government ministers in January 2016.
The cabinet’s decision was met with widespread dismay from liberal groups and Diaspora Jews.
Prime Minister Benjamin defended the move, with an aide to the premier saying that it will in fact help push the deal forward, and that Netanyahu had no choice but to halt the agreement as a result of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose support he needs to maintain his ruling coalition.
Last week, the US State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, which criticized the Western Wall rabbi over “guidelines for religious observance mandating separation of women and men, with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section, and the government continued to enforce these rules.”
The report, which was completed before the suspension of the deal on permanent pluralistic prayer area, also criticized the prohibitions against bringing in privately owned Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza, and on women “accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.”