Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews target women activists at Western Wall

An Israeli policeman grabs an Ultra Orthodox Jewish man as he shouts slogans against the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall on 10 May 2013 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. (Photo: AFP - Gali Tibbon)

Published Friday, May 10, 2013

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men tried to violently disrupt landmark prayers by Jewish women activists at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem Friday, a religious site that the ultra-Orthodox believe should be strictly gender-segregated and open only to the more traditional forms of prayer.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP that 1,000 ultra-Orthodox men were kept away from a large group of "Women of the Wall" activists conducting their monthly prayer using prayer shawls, after a court ruled they could do so.

"Police arrested three ultra-Orthodox men and detained another two for public disturbances," Rosenfeld said.

Ultra-Orthodox men had tried to break through reinforced police lines and reach the women, some calling police holding them back "Nazis" and yelling offensive remarks at the women while others blew on whistles to drown out their prayers.

An AFP correspondent said they also threw bags containing liquid, water bottles, bags of rubbish, plastic chairs and eggs at the police and women.

Two police officers were lightly injured and treated at the site, but no women were hurt and they managed to complete their prayers, some holding flowers alongside prayer books.

When the prayer ended, police escorted the women to a bus, which was hit by stones as it left the area, Rosenfeld said.

The women activists have for more than 20 years demanded to be allowed to pray using their form of liberal Judaism at the site, while wearing fringed prayer shawls and other religious objects and reading from Torah scrolls.

Under Orthodox Jewish practice, only men may wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, and most Orthodox Jews insist that only men should carry a Torah scroll. The more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, marginal in Israel but the largest denominations in the United States, allow women to practice the same way as men do in Orthodox Judaism. They are ordained as rabbis, lead services, read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.

Before Friday’s confrontation, police, acting under court orders, would distance and detain women activists for conduct considered "provocative" to ultra-Orthodox believers, some of whom would accost the women, creating disturbances.

Last month, a court determined the women's conduct was not causing disruption, rather it was those who were attacking them, and ruled that the Women of the Wall could pray at the site using their rites.

"We've completed a very historic prayer, if harrowing," Women of the Wall spokesperson Shira Pruce told AFP.

She said some 400 activists were confronted by thousands of protesters.

"We are extremely proud and happy that our women prayed peacefully and in complete freedom," she said, praising police for protecting them.

Ahead of Friday's monthly prayer, ultra-Orthodox rabbis called on seminary students to gather at the Western Wall to counter the Women of the Wall, and thousands filled the women's prayer section.

After consulting police, the activists decided to pray at the plaza not directly adjacent to the wall, Pruce said, since this enabled better police protection.

The women say access to the Wall, the most sacred spot at which Jews can pray, should be open to all streams of Judaism, including the Reform and Conservative branches.

They demand to be allowed to wear prayer shawls, phylacteries – small boxes fastened to the body by leather straps – and to read aloud from a Torah scroll.

The Western Wall is currently managed by ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, who called Friday's incident "painful images" and urged all sides to not drag the site into a separatism dispute.

The Western Wall is venerated by Jews as the last remnant of wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

On its other side is the compound housing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Also known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the compound is a deeply sensitive location where clashes frequently break out between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli forces.

Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky recently presented to the parliament a proposal that the Western Wall – currently divided between separate men's and women's prayer sections – be significantly extended to host a third zone for co-ed prayers.

Sharansky, who was commissioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a solution to the situation, said such a project could be completed within 10 months.

After the court decision paving the way for egalitarian women prayer, the religion ministry said it would look at proposing new regulations for prayer in the Old City, including at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens. For most of the last three decades, they have served in coalition governments, securing vast budgets for religious schools and exemptions from mandatory military service for tens of thousands of young men in full-time religious studies.

The system has bred widespread resentment among the secular and modern Orthodox majority. It became a central issue in January parliamentary elections, and ultra-Orthodox parties were eventually left out of the government.

Many Israelis also feel the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their values on the rest of society, with its activists pushing for gender-segregated buses and sidewalks, defacing billboards showing women or trying to force women to dress modestly.

(AFP, AP, Al-Akhbar)

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