Riot police were out in full force Friday at the Western Wall trying to contain ultra-Orthodox demonstrators attempting to break through barricades to approach Women of the Wall supporters and activists holding their monthly prayer service in the women’s section.
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Three people were arrested and two police officers were injured in the protests, in which demonstrators at several points threw water bottles and chairs in the direction of the women’s section, while calling the police “Nazis” and shouting at them “Go back to Germany.”
Police formed a human barricade to hold back the protesters when the women exited the prayer plaza after they had concluded their service. After they had passed through Dung Gate, a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters began throwing rocks in their direction. They continued to throw rocks at buses that delivered the women away from the violent protests.
On their way out to the gate, the women and their supporters sang and clapped, occasionally throwing kisses in direction of the jeering ultra-Orthodox protestors.
Police exhibited considerable restraint throughout the morning’s events and did not resort to tear gas or other crowd dispersal measures. Several ultra-Orthodox demonstrators were detained by police.
Although unplanned, Women of the Wall held their prayer service this month together with a group of male supporters. A ring of police surrounded them in order to protect them from the ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. It was the first time an egalitarian service of this sort had been held at the women’s section by the organization.
As expected, members of the women’s group were not detained this month for wearing prayer shawls, as police complied with a new ruling by the Jerusalem District Court that such practice does not violate the “local custom.”
Police estimated that somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 people were at the Western Wall Friday morning, thousands more than usually turn out for the monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis had instructed young seminary girls to come en masse to the holy site in order to fill up the women’s prayer section and demonstrate force in numbers. Indeed, thousands obeyed the rabbis’s calls. Aside from a few exceptions, most of the young women prayed quietly and did not try to engage Women of the Wall and their supporters in verbal conflict.
Following the service, Lesley Sachs, the director of Women of the Wall, said: “I’m excited that all these young girls have to the Rosh Chodesh service because of us. I’m sure that in some of their minds, there’s that question: ‘Why not? All this cannot be because there are some Jewish women just wanting to pray.’”
Women of the Wall had originally planned to bring a Torah scroll into the women’s prayer section for the first time in more than 20 years, but at the request of Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett reneged at the last moment.
An organization spokeswoman, Shira Pruce, said that roughly 500 of their supporters attended the morning service. However, only about 20-30, eventually surrounded by police, succeeded in making their way into the women’s section.
Several young seminary girls questioned by Haaretz said that they had come to theWestern Wall because they were told to do so. One young woman, named Rachel, who refused to provide her last name or the name of her seminary, said she had come to protest women praying in the men’s section. Women of the Wall, however, do not pray in the men’s section, but in the women’s section.
Rabbi Aaron Frank, the principal of Beth Tefiloh, a modern Orthodox day school in Baltimore, said he had just “come to daven” at the Western Wall with a few of his students. But when a group of ultra-Orthodox noticed him being interviewed by a foreign TV crew, they began shouting in his direction: “You are a Reform Christian. You are a Muslim. You are the pope.”
“For me, what they are doing is a desecration of God’s name, and I believe that 90 percent of Orthodox Jews would see this as a desecration,” he said. “This is a very sad day for the Jewish people, but for me it’s very important that people see that not all Orthodox men are like this.”
Ronit Peskin, an ultra-Orthodox women and the director of a brand new organization called Women for the Wall, which opposes Women of the Wall, credited her own organization with the massive turnout of ultra-Orthodox women this morning. “We were the ones who got the rabbis to do this,” she claimed.
She said, however, that she and her cohorts had not asked ultra-Orthodox men to show up in force and were disappointed with their behavior.
Lynn Nadeau, a 72-year-old from Marblehead, Mass., was visiting the wall this morning on her first trip ever to Israel. “I think the men should be kept away,” she said, “because their anger is so strong and frightening. Women, however, can talk to other women even if they disagree.”
“I’m used to a pluralistic society where the chief rabbi doesn’t tell everyone how to live their lives,” she added. “It looks to me that all these ultra-Orthodox girls here have been manipulated.”
Sharon Klein, a recent immigrant who moved to Israel from New York a year and a half ago, said she was not active in Women of the Wall but decided to come out this morning to express solidarity with the group. “It’s amazing that you have to have riot police here to prevent religious Jews from attacking other Jews,” she said.
Tamar Zandberg, a Knesset member from Meretz, described the morning’s events as “the first stirrings of the collapse of the monopoly of male-dominated Orthodox Judaism in this country.”
“It is an attempt by the rabbinate to hold onto its last vestiges in the face of a changing world,” she said. Other parliamentary representatives in attendance at the Women of the Wall prayer service were Michal Rozin of Meretz and Likud Miri Regev of the Likud. Both Meretz Knesset members have been joining Women of the Wall each month in recent months.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who has drafted a proposal to extend the Western Wall prayer area to include a third section for egalitarian services, said that Friday morning’s events “reinforce the urgent need for a sustainable solution which will allow any Jew, group of Jews or Jewish community to pray at the Western Wall according to their own custom.”
He praised police for their “level-headed action in the very difficult circumstances, dealing with the rioters while helping ensure that those engaged in prayer could do so.”
'Following in the footsteps of the paratroopers'
After concluding the prayer service with the singing of Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, said the group would stand firm regarding their right to pray at the Western Wall Plaza. "We are continuing in the footsteps of the paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall," said Hoffman.
Hoffman also said the plan to rewrite the Statute on Protecting Holy Places to prevent the women's group from praying there would encounter staunch opposition among Jews around the world. "I want to see Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett… and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni implement a statute that forbids a woman to read from the Torah here, or that would forbid it for six months," she said. The Jewish world will quake over something like this. [It would be] an earthquake."
Hoffman added that the women's group intends to continue coming, with approval, to the central prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
"This is it; the sole rule of the ultra-Orthodox is finished. This isn't an ultra-Orthodox synagogue," she said. "I am happy to see that the people who arrested me are now working hard, as is appropriate, to protect me. This is how the police must act, to defend the minority. At the end of the day, they (the ultra-Orthodox) will get used to us."