Despite predictions of ten thousand demonstrators, only several hundred ultra-Orthodox men turned up Sunday morning at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to protest the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer gathering.
The women, who numbered over 300, were escorted by police from a nearby park and shielded through a decoy entrance at the foot of Judaism’s holiest site. Hundreds of officers were on hand to prevent injury to the women and keep the demonstration from getting out of hand.
In an effort to reduce friction following last month’s disturbances, ultra-Orthodox rabbis asked that only adults attend the demonstration. Police appeared to have come prepared on Sunday morning. They set up a separate area within the women’s section to prevent friction between the Women of the Wall and the more traditional women worshippers.
Still, there was a brief scuffle between one member of Women of the Wall and an ultra-Orthodox woman who was calling the group an “abomination.”
“Our aim is to flood the area with protesters and thus prevent the women from entering the premises and causing a provocation,” Yitzhak Brenner, one of the ultra-Orthodox organizers, had told the Hebrew daily Maariv. “Everyone realizes that this is a holy site and that their [the women’s] sole goal is to cause controversy. We need to put an end to it.”
Police prevented hundreds of ultra-Orthodox from accessing the site, the Haredi news site Behadrei Haredim reported. There were also reports that roads leading to the Old City were closed off to prevent access to the Western Wall.
The women didn’t bring in Torah scrolls after Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, vowed to forbid them from carrying in the scrolls and reading from the Torah. In a police preparation meeting last week, the police produced a document showing the ban on torah scrolls, so the women decided to not bring in any on Sunday. But Einat Horovitz, legal counsel to to the group, told The Times of Israel that Women of the Wall was looking into the legality and hoped to do a complete prayer service next month.
The group’s members have in the past been arrested for wearing prayer shawls due to a law forbidding the practice that falls outside the wall’s “local custom.” In April, however, a judge determined that the group’s activities — including reading from a Torah scroll — did not contravene the law.
“This is not a provocation, but rather a sincere, heartfelt prayer service, which we have been holding every month for 24 years,” said Women of the Wall director Anat Hoffman.
On Friday, a youth from the West Bank was arrested after he inquired, on a website, whether shooting members of the Women of the Wall while they wear the tallit, or prayer shawl, is permissible according to Jewish law.
Israel Radio reported that the 17-year-old, who studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, was told that violence is absolutely forbidden. The student claimed that he never intended to actually harm any members of the organization.
The Women of the Wall, who gather monthly to celebrate Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month) in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, pray with tefillin (phylacteries), tallit, and Torah scrolls, religious items traditionally used only by men. The group maintains its actions are not in contravention of Jewish law.
A month ago, the group’s prayer service was bolstered by hundreds of supporters but confronted by thousands of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews who attempted to prevent the women from praying by sheer weight of numbers. The standoff became a violent shoving match and some ultra-Orthodox youths threw rocks and garbage at the women and their buses. Police intervened to protect the women and three men were arrested. In the past, Women of the Wall members have been arrested at the Western Wall for holding their controversial prayer services, but later released without charge.
A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that 48 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, including 64% of its secular citizens, support the Women of the Wall organization in its bid to enable alternatives to traditional prayer services at the Western Wall.