JERUSALEM — Forming human chains and using metal barriers, Israeli police held back thousands of ultraorthodox protesters who tried to prevent a liberal Jewish women’s group from praying at a sensitive holy site Friday, the first time police have come down on the side of the women and not the protesters.
The reversal followed a court order backing the right of the women to pray at the Western Wall using religious rituals that Orthodox Jews insist should be practiced only by men.
Wearing prayer shawls, phylacteries and skull caps traditionally reserved for men under strict Orthodox tenets, the women sang and prayed out loud. A girl celebrating her Bat Mitzvah was hoisted on a chair as the women danced, clapping their hands and singing.
A short distance away, ultraorthodox men yelled obscenities and scuffled with police. Some cursed and spat at the women and threw chairs and other objects.
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“It is very painful to see the Western Wall turn into a battlefield instead of a holy prayer site,” Jerusalem police chief Yossi Parienti told reporters.
The “Women of the Wall” group has been holding monthly prayer services on the first day of the Hebrew month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for more than two decades. Accused by ultraorthodox leaders of violating “local custom” at the holy site, many of the group’s members have been arrested.
The women have also faced heckling and legal battles in their struggle to worship at the wall — the holiest place where Jews can pray — as men do. Then last month a Jerusalem court instructed police to stop detaining the women.
On Friday, police protected the women and arrested three ultraorthodox men for disorderly conduct, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. “The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice.”
Israeli media reported that some rabbis called on followers to flood the Western Wall to try to block the women from reaching the site. TV footage showed girls praying at the wall as chaos erupted behind them.
Police formed a ring around the women in the packed Western Wall plaza, with some shoving back ultraorthodox men. A human chain of female police officers encircled a group of young female protesters.
The dispute is part of a wider culture clash that has triggered a backlash against Israel’s ultraorthodox community.
The plaza in front of the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish Temples, is marked off into two distinct sections, one for male worshippers and the other for women. Until now, women have had to abide by the Orthodox strictures of prayer.
Under Orthodox Jewish practice, only men are permitted to wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, and most Orthodox Jews insist that only men carry a Torah scroll. By contrast, the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, the largest denominations in the United States, allow women to wear prayer shawls, be ordained as rabbis, lead services and read from the Torah.
Israeli officials and lawmakers have been attempting to find a compromise that will satisfy both the women’s group and the ultraorthodox. They have proposed establishing a new section at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. The proposal, if implemented, would be a victory for the more liberal streams of Judaism, which have been battling to be granted recognition in Israel.