Israeli police have held back thousands of ultra-conservative Jews who tried to drive liberal women worshippers from Judaism’s sacred Western Wall, marking a major shift in the authorities’ handling of a long-running religious schism.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters, dressed in traditional dark clothing, threw chairs and water at the women yesterday, then later stoned their buses. Two policemen were hurt.
Previously, police detained members of Women of the Wall, a group challenging the Orthodox monopoly over rites at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, for wearing prayer shawls in violation of Orthodox tradition.
This time police arrested five religious protesters instead.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. “The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice.”
The police response followed a court ruling last month that found that the group was not in violation of the law.
The issue is at the heart of a long struggle between a secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority over lifestyle in a country where institutions such as marriage, divorce and burial are controlled by religious authorities.
Dozens of border policemen formed a cordon to keep the protesters at the site – revered as part of the Biblical Jewish Temple compound – from charging at the approximately 100 women and some male supporters as they prayed.
“They’re desecrating the site of our holy temple,” shouted one of the hundreds of Orthodox women who went to protest against Women of the Wall.
Yocheved Malachi called it shocking that women would wear prayer shawls or other religious gear, which Orthodox tradition reserves for men.
Friday’s prayers were the first in weeks in which police avoided any showdown with Women of the Wall, whose members have been detained in the past and charged with disruption for violating Orthodox traditions at a holy site. They are seeking a greater role in prayer ritual.
“I’m seeing signs of progress,” worshipper Lisa Kainan said about the police presence.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked former cabinet minister and Jewish leader Natan Sharansky to seek a compromise to permit the Women of the Wall to hold prayers without exacerbating tensions with the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Mr Sharansky has since proposed a formula to widen a separate zone at the Western Wall once designated for egalitarian prayer, a suggestion neither side nor the government has yet embraced.
Under Orthodox Jewish teaching, 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.