Members and supporters of the Women of the Wall organization were subjected to body searches on Thursday as they tried to enter the Western Wall Plaza.
The women were also disturbed during their monthly prayer service marking the start of the new Jewish month by ultra-Orthodox women at the site who loudly blew whistles.
During the searches, aimed at preventing the smuggling of Torah scrolls to the women’s section, some women were ordered to remove their coats and scarves and at least one woman was asked to take off her outer garments during a private search, the Haaretz daily reported.
Women of the Wall run gender egalitarian services at the Jewish holy site in defiance of the state-imposed ultra-Orthodox regulations at the Wall.
The increase in security was ordered by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, run by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch. The foundation determines the customs at the Western Wall, which are strictly Orthodox. Women of the Wall has been banned from bringing Torah scrolls into the women’s section since its inception 25 years ago.
“The fact that the rabbi of the Western Wall and his representatives refuse to stop the desecration of the Kotel by the whistles of the ultra-Orthodox, gives them a green light for continued escalation of violence against us,” Lesley Sachs, director of the Women of the Wall, said in a statement.
A post on the group’s Facebook page Thursday said ultra-Orthodox women physically attacked Women of the Wall board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun during the monthly prayer service.
Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment wields a monopoly over key aspects of religious life in the country, such as marriage, divorce and burial, while Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized and their movements are largely marginalized. Unlike in the US, most Jews in Israel, while secular, follow Orthodox traditions.
The Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount complex, is the holiest site where Jews may pray. It is currently administered by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities. The site designates separate men’s and women’s prayer sections and forbids non-Orthodox prayer, like mixed-gender services and women-led prayers.
Women of the Wall has caused controversy for holding monthly non-Orthodox prayers at the site. Police have previously arrested women carrying Torah scrolls and wearing religious articles traditionally reserved for men, practices ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose and consider a provocation.
Almost a year ago, the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency and the government reached an agreement to establish a designated area for mixed-gender worship. Under the compromise approved by the Cabinet in January, an area of the wall near Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and placed under the authority of a pluralist committee. The plan called for solidifying Haredi control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.
But the multi-denominational, egalitarian worship area directly south of the Western Wall plaza, meant to soothe tensions at the holy site instead became mired in government infighting.
On Monday, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said it would propose a Knesset bill to ban pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall plaza.
The party said its legislation intended to prevent actions, including “religious ceremonies,” that “do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation who pray there.”
The proposed law would also penalize those who defy its strictures, including those who hold mixed-gender services, women’s Torah readings or include women donning a prayer shawl or phylacteries, with up to six months’ imprisonment or a fine of NIS 10,000.
Should the bill pass into law, it would effectively nullify the January compromise agreement and prayer services would be limited to state-approved Orthodox practice only.
In September, the High Court of Justice called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement the compromise agreement, noting that it had already passed as a cabinet decision.