Ten women who took part in a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall on Monday were arrested as they were leaving the plaza of the holy site, and taken in for questioning by police. Police waited until most of the hundreds of participants in the service, their supporters, and the media had dispersed to make the arrests. They were released after close to three hours of questioning.
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Among those arrested were Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall; Lesley Sachs, its director; Rabbi Susan Silverman, the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, along with her teenage daughter Hallel Abramowitz; Lior Nevo, a rabbinical student in the advanced stages of pregnancy; and two rabbis from the United States – Debra Cantor from Connecticut and Robin Fryer Bodzin from New York.
Until that point, police had largely refrained from intervening during the service, standing on the sidelines as the women donned prayer shawls, recited the prayers out loud and even danced in a hora-like circle, holding onto their prayer shawls with outstretched arms. In past months, women were arrested on the spot for partaking in similar practices.
At one point, police asked three women who were wearing prayer shawls to follow them. When the women refused and sat on the ground linking arms, police left them alone.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky responded angrily when he heard news of the arrests, Haaretz has learned. Sharansky, who was instructed last month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recommend a solution to the ongoing controversy over prayer at the Western Wall, had contacted Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente last week and requested that he dispatch only female police officers to the upcoming Women of the Wall prayer service and refrain from unnecessary interference. Upon news of the arrests, he called the police chief and strongly urged him to release the women as soon as possible.
Organizers estimated that several hundred women participated in the service, not including dozens of male supporters who joined them in prayer from the other side of the barrier separating men and women at the Western Wall.
Among the men were six former Israel Defense Forces paratroopers who had liberated the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and who had come to show their support for the women’s organization.
It was the biggest crowd ever to participate in the monthly prayer service which began two decades ago, organizers said. This month's service also drew an unusually large delegation of international press members.
Responding to pressure from the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his decision last month to revisit government policy concerning prayer at the Western Wall and instructed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to prepare recommendations to resolve the ongoing controversy between Women of the Wall and the Orthodox establishment.
At the conclusion of the morning service and minutes before police detained her on Monday, Hoffman said she was sure the reason police had refrained this month from interfering during the organization’s prayers was because of the presence of the former paratroopers.
“It’s because of Israelis like you who decided to get up and do something that for the first time in 22 months, we were actually able to complete the service without any interferences from the police,” Hoffman told the paratroopers after the service.
Paraphrasing the famous words of the late Motta Gur, who led the paratrooper brigade that liberated the Western Wall, she said: “The Western Wall is in our hands.”
The undisputed star of this month’s Women of the Wall event was Dr. Yitzhak Yifat, the Jerusalem gynecologist whose image was immortalized in the famous photo taken by David Rubinger during the Six-Day War of the three paratroopers standing at the Western Wall. Yiftah, the soldier standing in the middle of the photo, this morning held a small paratrooper flag in his hand as he stood with the crowd of male supporters overlooking the women’s section of the plaza.
“I decided to come here to show my support for all those who wish to pray at the Kotel whatever way they wish, so long as they are not doing anything immoral,” said Yiftah. “It breaks my heart that the ultra-Orthodox have decided the Kotel belongs to them.”
Eilon Bartov, another paratrooper who fought in the 1967 battle in the Old City of Jerusalem, said he had decided to attend the prayer service as an act of protest against the police. “For me it is astonishing that women can be arrested in this country for wearing prayer shawls,” he said. “It is as though we were in Iran.”
After Hoffman and the others were detained, members of Women and the Wall and their supporters continued the traditional Monday morning Torah reading service outside the police interrogation center in the Old City where they were being held.
At the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Western Wall, several women had their prayer shawls confiscated by police as they arrived for the morning prayer service. Most, however, managed to hide them from police by wearing them under their coats.
During the entire prayer service, female police officers holding camcorders stood on the sidelines recording scenes of the women participating in the service.
Opponents of Women of the Wall maintain the group’s tactics are overly confrontational and gimmicky and that by engaging in practices many Orthodox Jews consider to be provocations, its members are harming rather than promoting the cause of Jewish pluralism and tolerance. Their opponents also say that Women of the Wall should move their prayer services over to the nearby Robinson’s Arch area that was offered to them by the government as an alternative venue rather than insist on congregating at the Kotel.
Michal Kafrey, a longtime resident of the nearby Jewish Quarter of the Old City, said she was not a member of Women of the Wall but had decided to join the group for the first time in order to express her outrage at how the women had been treated by police in recent months. “When I saw those scenes of the women being arrested on TV, I said to myself that enough is enough,” she said.
Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser, part of a delegation of women from Atlanta, Ga., who had come to Israel this month in order to participate in the Women of the Wall Service, said: “It’s very troubling for those of us in the States who see this as our Jewish homeland and yet half of us don’t have access to be who we are at our holiest sites. I wear a tallit every time I pray, but here in the Jewish state, I can’t. It’s ironic that it’s the only place in the world where I can’t.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, decried the arrests and urged Israel's politicians to make the struggle for religious freedom a priority.
"The Women of the Wall's prayers were carried out without any public disturbance, until the police's biased and outrageous decision to detain some of the worshipers," said.
"From here at the Western Wall, I called on the public security ministry and the police commissioner to order the release of these women immediately," Kariv added. "We call on the various parties to put the issue of freedom of ritual at the Western Wall and freedom of religion in Israel on the table during coalition negotiations."