Several hundred members of the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group were blocked from entering the women’s section of the Western Wall on Monday morning, with police saying the move was due to thousands of young Orthodox girls who had taken over the site.
It was the first time in the group’s 25-year history that it was denied access to the women’s section for its monthly prayer session, Haaretz reported.
Police said that between 5,000 and 7,000 seminary girls had thronged the women’s area, on orders from their religious leadership, in order to deny access to the Women of the Wall. In addition, police said, about 1,000 ultra-Orthodox male protesters were in the Western Wall plaza seeking to disrupt the controversial prayer service, which is held by the Women of the Wall at the start of each new month (Rosh Chodesh).
The Women of the Wall said, however, that the plaza was “relatively empty” and that in the women’s section, despite the presence of thousands of girls, there was still room enough for the group to pray.
The women were able to pray in a side area, set off from the Wall itself, where they were neverthless surrounded by protesters. According to posts on the group’s Facebook page, the women were pelted with eggs during their prayer service and one female reporter on the scene was assaulted.
Police said the Women of the Wall group numbered 200-250 people, and that two protesters were arrested on Monday: one man who threw a bottle and a woman who attempted to physically prevent the activists from accessing the Western Wall prayer area.
The Women of the Wall put their numbers at more than 350, plus around 100 male supporters. The director of the group, Lesley Sachs, accused the police of giving in to “politics and bullies instead of upholding women’s democratic right to pray freely” at the site.
Women of the Wall have increased their public profile this year after a series of confrontations at the Wall and subsequent legal rulings in their favor. The group, according to its website, seeks “the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall,” an objective that is vehemently opposed by the ultra-Orthodox.
Last month’s prayer service went off relatively without incident, and in May, the women prayed with police protection for the first time after a Jerusalem court ruled that, in donning prayer shawls and phylacteries, they weren’t violating a law that requires that the “local custom” of the Western Wall be upheld.
In April, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, at the behest of by Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, presented a plan that would create a third area at the Western Wall designated for egalitarian prayer.
Previously, the Women of the Wall had been given use of Robinson’s Arch, an area in an adjacent archaeological park, but the women complained that it was inadequate because the location was not open at all times, unlike the main Western Wall plaza, and required an entry fee.