JERUSALEM (JTA) – Haredi Orthodox youths mobbed the Western Wall plaza by the thousands to protest Women of the Wall as they held their monthly prayer service.
The youths, many of them students from haredi Orthodox yeshivas, filled the Western Wall Plaza by 6:40 a.m. on Friday, 20 minutes before Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that holds monthly services at the site, also called the Kotel, began praying. Because haredi Orthodox women had packed the women’s section of the plaza earlier in the morning, Women of the Wall were forced to pray in the back section of the plaza, further away from the Kotel itself.
The Women of the Wall service to mark Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Hebrew month, was the first since a ruling last month by a Jerusalem District Court judge that the group’s services do not violate the law and merit police protection rather than arrests.
Police were on hand Friday morning to protect the women, a reversal of scenes from months past, when women wearing prayer shawls to the monthly service would be arrested for breaking a law that outlawed any deviation from “local custom” at the wall. Police arrested three haredi protesters, and a police spokesman said more arrests may be in the offing as police review video.
[WHAT’S NEXT? Read Ben Sales’ analysis of how haredi Orthodox Israelis are mobilizing in Israel’s religious pluralism battles.]
One day before the service, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteynman, a haredi leader, called on thousands of students to protest Women of the Wall.
When the service began on Friday, it was met by an ongoing din of screaming, and shrieks erupted when a woman wearing a prayer shawl tried to push through the mob to reach the service. Police, alternately holding hands or linking arms, held back the crowd while two officers, with difficulty, escorted the woman through.
“It’s sad that they’re using the Kotel to advance their interests,” said an Orthodox graphic designer from Jerusalem, 29, who declined to give her name. “They want to change all of Israel. It’s an insult to this place.”
Women of the Wall’s service has rarely, if ever, seen this many people come to protest. Many of the haredim said that they were there to pray, as many Jews do daily at the wall.
“I came to pray and to protest gentiles who masquerade as Jews,” said Pini, 17, from Jerusalem, who would not give his last name. “I’ve taken hits here and I’ll take more hits. They’re making the Torah crooked. They want us to be like them.”
[READERS RESPOND: Read JTA’s letters blog for first-person accounts of Friday’s Western Wall clashes.]
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency who has been endeavoring to broker a modus vivendi at the wall by expanding the prayer area, said the events of Friday morning underscored the need for a compromise. In a statement he described an “urgent need” for a solution that would “allow any Jew, group of Jews or Jewish community to pray at the Western Wall according to their own custom.”
Sharansky praised the police for protecting those engaged in prayer from “rioters.”
As the service went on, the crowd of haredi Orthodox men tried to push through the police barricade several times. The men almost succeeded before police officers pushed them back, sometimes manhandling a student or two along the way. As attempt after attempt to breach the police line failed, the men began throwing cups of water and coffee at police, journalists and – when they could – the women praying. One protester threw a chair.
At times, the haredi Orthodox crowd broke into song, chanting about the failure of wicked plans and the dominion of God.
Throughout, Women of the Wall conducted its full prayer service, trying to sing over the screams that rose every time a song began. For the first time in months, men and women mixed at the service with no divider to separate them.
“This is an embarrassment and a shame how some people are acting to people who just want to pray,” said Bracha, 66, who participated in Women of the Wall’s service and also would not give her last name. “There’s space for everybody. People need to relate with understanding to those who don’t do the same thing as them.”
For some supporters of Women of the Wall, Friday’s conflict was about more than the right to pray freely at Judaism’s holiest site.
“This is a struggle for democracy in Israel,” said Lucas Lejderman, 30, a counselor in the Conservative Jewish youth movement here.
Whether protesters will turn out in equal numbers when Women of the Wall meet for next month’s Rosh Chodesh service is unclear. As the crowd dispersed, the women sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. As if on cue, the handful of protesters who remained booed at the top of their lungs.