Citing security concerns, police on Monday took the unprecedented step of barring Women of the Wall, the pluralistic women’s prayer group, from holding their monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the women’s section of the Western Wall.
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About 300 Women of the Wall activists and their supporters were kept behind police barricades and prevented from approaching the vicinity of the women’s section, where they have held their prayer services every month for the past 25 years.
Two Haredim were detained for behaving violently toward the women’s prayer group. A police spokesman, Shmulik Ben Ruby, said one Haredi male teen was detained for throwing a bottle over the barricade at members of the women’s prayer group and another Haredi woman was detained for trying to physically prevent them from entering the space.
The Haredim object to their practice of donning praying shawls and tefillin while they prayer, as well as to their practice of reciting the prayers out loud.
Ben Ruby said that the decision to prevent Women of the Wall from entering the prayer area was because it was already filled to capacity with somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 young seminary woman, who had “overtaken the space.” On Sunday, a number of prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis had called on young seminary women to show up in large numbers at the Western Wall to protest Women of the Wall. The ultra-Orthodox women were asked to show up at 6:30 A.M., a half hour before Women of the Wall were scheduled to arrive so that the women’s prayer area would be filled by the time the pluralistic group members arrived.
Still, passersby who managed to avert the barricades and enter the women’s prayer area said it was not overflowing, as police claimed, but simply full and that it would have been possible to accommodate the several hundred worshippers who arrived in a police-escorted convoy with Women of the Wall either inside the designated women’s space or right near it.
Last month, police had cordoned off a special section within the women’s prayer area for Women of the Wall. Very few ultra-Orthodox seminary women showed up last month.
Because the women were not allowed to enter their usual space by the Western Wall this morning, they had no choice but to hold an egalitarian service together with their male supporters in the barricaded area further away. About 1,000 ultra-Orthodox men had gathered on the other side of the barricades, some of them throwing eggs at the worshippers and at least one incident of stone throwing was reported. Throughout the prayer service, the ultra-Orthodox could be heard jeering the women, and at one point, several older ultra-Orthodox women began blowing whistles in an attempt to drown out the sounds of the women’s prayer group. A bearded man with side-locks who had been praying with the group was accosted by a group of ultra-Orthodox men when he left the site. Police intervened in order to pull him away.
Sari Laufer, a rabbi from the Reform congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, was hit with an egg in the neck while she was praying. “It is profoundly sad that this is happening on Rosh Chodesh,” said the six-months pregnant woman, referring to the beginning of the month of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the temple.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in the United States, said that he was disappointed the group could not hold its service at the Kotel. “Someone seemed to drop the ball here,” he said, “and what this demonstrates is the importance of implementing the Sharansky plan as soon as possible.” He was referring to the plan proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to construct a new section at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer services.
Two months ago, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that Women of the Wall have the right to pray as they see fit at the holy site and that their practice of wearing prayer shawls and tefillin is not a violation of “local custom.” Referring to the scene at this morning’s prayers services, Wernick said: “I don’t think this is what the district court had in mind.”
Representative of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel expressed outrage at the police decision to bar the women’s prayer group from their usual venue. “This is a scandal and absolute chutzpah,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel. “It is a blatant violation of the district court ruling.” He warned that if government officials did not intervene to guarantee the women’s prayer group access to the Kotel, his organization would veto all efforts to reach a compromise on the disputed issue of prayer at the wall.
He accused the police of plotting together with Haredi leaders to prevent the women’s prayer group from approaching the wall. “They’re here today to have a picnic rather than to do their job of guaranteeing that women have equal rights to pray,” he said.
Representatives of Women of the Wall said they had held talks with police all week long about the security precautions that would be taken to guarantee they would be able to hold their prayer service safely. They said they were shocked by the last-minute police decision to bar their access to the women’s section. “I’m absolutely livid,” said executive director Lesley Sachs. “They have put us here at the back of the bus, and it is clear that this was planned.”
Izhar Hess, the director of the Israeli Conservative-Masorati movement, said: “For two months, police did a great job. Today, they screwed up big time.” He warned that the organization might challenge the police decision in court.
A police spokeswoman said that the decision to bar the women’s prayer group from the Kotel was taken on the spot, and not planned in advance, when it became clear that there was not enough room to accommodate the worshippers and that granting them entrance to the women’s section would have constituted a security hazard.