JERUSALEM — A women's prayer service at Israel's holy Western Wall Friday was marred by arrests, as about 6,000 people swarmed the site to protest the liberal Jewish women's group.
Around 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men and 3,000 young girls were among those in attendance, according to Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.
"Women of the Wall," a pluralistic organization of religious Jewish women who demand to be allowed to pray at the Western Wall while not observing ultra-Orthodox custom, have gathered to pray at the Wall every month for more than 25 years.
Often there are protests. Ultra-Orthodox authorities in charge of the Wall believe that women should only be allowed to pray at the Wall according to ultra-Orthodox custom.
This time, the event was particularly contentious because the rabbi in charge of the Wall called for young girls to come protest.
An Israeli court this week authorized "Women of the Wall" to pray whatever way they wished at the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's Old City.
Police kept the group of protesters back from the women as they prayed Friday. They arrested three and detained another two for public disturbance.
Police have always protected the group, but today's event was larger than ever before. Also, the new court ruling has increased tensions surrounding the event.
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“It’s a historic moment,” said Shira Pruce, a Women of the Wall spokesperson. “The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice.”
The Women of the Wall don't demand to pray alongside men. Rather, they want to be able to pray according to Conservative and Reform Jewish custom.
The men reportedly called the police officers "Nazis" and shouted offensive comments at the women. Others blew on whistles loudly to block out the women's prayers, or threw bags of liquid, garbage, eggs and chairs.
Natan Sharansky, Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that "a sustainable solution is urgent and this morning's clashes at the Western Wall dramatically reinforces Israel's need to allow any Jew, group of Jews or Jewish community to pray at the Western Wall according to their own customs."
Coalition horsetrading and political consideration have led successive Israeli governments to virtually relinquish control of the Western Wall to rabbis who belong to right-wing political parties, and who represent religious views that belong to a minority even within the religious public in Israel.
That equilibrium seems to be changing now, following the election of a government that contains no religious parties and a more demanding and activist public. The question of the draft of ultra-Orthodox young men, who for the 65-year history of the State of Israel have been exempt from the military service all other young people are subject to, has been front and center.
There are likely to be legal ramifications to today's massive protest. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis bussed in about 3,000 high-school girls to try to prevent the women from praying. Already, Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders are calling for an inquiry into their actions.
The rabbis who control access to the Western Wall are employees of the state, and as such are prohibited from inciting minors for this type of protest.