Source: USA TODAY
JERUSALEM – Israeli police formed a human shield at the holy site of the Western Wall on Friday to hold back thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters who tried to prevent a Jewish women’s group from praying in a way traditionally reserved for men.
Heeding the calls of their rabbis, thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, women and schoolgirls known as “haredim” converged on the Wall, part of the ancient Jewish Temple, to assert Orthodox authority over it and drown out Women of the Wall’s spirited prayers.
Though women can pray at the Wall, a recent Israeli court ruling allows them to pray in prayer shawls and phylacteries – ritual items traditional Jews say should be worn solely by men. Until the ruling, police arrested the women for donning these items at the site, one of the holiest in Judaism.
Jerusalem Police Commander Yossi Parienti said the scene looked “like a battlefield.”
Dozens of ultra-Orthodox men in black hats and coats spit, threw rocks, water bottles, eggs and chairs at the group of 400 women. Police arrested three of the demonstrators.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall.
The Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has called the women’s group a “provocation,” appealed for calm.
“No one in Israel wants a disagreement at the Western Wall,” Rabinowitz told Israel Army Radio.
The standoff, by far the largest in Women of the Wall’s 24-year history, is part of a larger battle over the democratic character of Israel, where religious leaders who receive government salaries and have legal authority over many aspects of life.
Many Jewish Israelis question the ultra-Orthodox authority over public life. The Chief Rabbinate, a governmental body, has sole authority to decide on rules for Jewish marriage and divorce. Non-Orthodox marriages and divorces performed in Israel are not recognized by the Israeli government.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men have traditionally been exempt from the country’s mandatory military service and receive subsidies so that they can devote their full time to studying in religious schools, or yeshivas.
Their schools teach almost no secular subjects, not even math, so it is the haredi women who train for paying careers, often in teaching or retail, but increasingly high-tech. The Orthodox say they are preserving Jewish culture to ensure the faith and its people survive, and the Israeli government t has traditionally provided haredi yeshiva students with stipends to help them do it.
But the Orthodox see the new centrist coalition government voted in this year as a threat to their authority.
The coalition vows to limit haredi military exemptions further and lower subsidies to the point where haredi men will feel compelled to join the workforce. And liberal Jews have had success defeating some Orthodox initiatives, especially with regard to women. This week the Israeli Attorney General called on government ministers to put an end to gender segregation at cemeteries and on buses.
Barry Leff, an American-Israeli Conservative rabbi whose 12-year-old daughter, Devorah, celebrated her bat-mitzva during Friday’s tumultuous Women of the Wall service, attributed the ultra-Orthodox’s mass turnout to fear.
“They feel very much under attack these days,” he said. “They got left out of government coalition discussions, their men will have to serve in the military, and their boys will need to learn some secular subjects for their schools to receive state funding.”
“The community is crying, ‘The secular are attacking our lifestyle!’” And that’s true, Leff said.
The Wall is one of the most visible flash points for the conflict.
The ultra-Orthodox complain that the liberal women are at the Wall not to pray but to push a political stand considered to be a desecration of the holiest site in Judaism.
Mina Fenton, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman who is ultra-Orthodox, said Women of the Wall is a fringe group that attracts people “who read the prayer book upside down.”
Fenton also blamed the group for the violence. “If haredi boys are wrestling with the police it’s because of the Women of the Wall and their actions,” she said.
But other Orthodox women were not as opposed to the group.
“I think everyone should be able to practice their religion freely,” said Adi Goldberg, a 19-year-old American spending the year at an Orthodox seminary.
Naomi Schacter, a longtime Jerusalemite, said she had braved the demonstrators “to fight for the soul of the country. It’s about religious freedom and how it can be expressed.”
Tamar Zandberg, a female parliamentarian who donned a prayer shawl and prayed with the Women of the Wall on Friday, said it is ironic that Israel, the national Jewish homeland, “is the place where Judaism is least pluralistic.
“It’s changing, but slowly,” she said.
The ultra-Orthodox objection to women praying in the manner traditionally reserved for men at the Wall has never been made law. But the Israeli minister of religion has said he may introduce legislation to make it illegal.
Under pressure from the Israeli public and Jews outside Israel, the majority of whom are not Orthodox, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a plan to create a third, egalitarian section at the Western Wall in addition to the two reserved for women and men. The new section would enable liberal Jewish women and men to pray together.
Minister of Religion Naftali Bennett has asked the Women of the Wall to give up reading the Torah and wearing phylacteries (a pair of small leather boxes containing parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah) until that is accomplished.
Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, rejects the offer and says her group has compromised enough.
It is “hard to believe that in 2013, the ministers of religion and justice will approve such a law,” she said.