Protesters demanding equal prayer rights for women at one of Judaism’s holiest sites scuffled with ultra-Orthodox Jews today as they sought to approach Jerusalem’s Western Wall, organisers said. Some 200 of the protesters marched to the wall in Jerusalem’s Old City in defiance of a call by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid “unnecessary friction.” The demonstrators are demanding changes to current rules at the site requiring women and men to pray in separate sections. Women also may not lead prayers or handle Torah scrolls.
“Two women fell to the ground. I lost my glasses in the scuffles,” said Sylvie Rozenbaum, a member of the Women of the Wall group, which organised the protest. The protest was the latest organised by the group, which has for years pushed for equal prayer rights. They were joined by conservative and reform Jews from the United States, more liberal Jewish movements pushing for change. About half of the participants were men.
When the women protesters sought to enter the women’s section of the wall while carrying Torah scrolls, ultra-Orthodox Jews dressed in their traditional black suits tried to block them and grab the scrolls, leading to pushing and shoving.
They eventually managed to enter with several Torah scrolls and conduct a prayer service. Police said no arrests had been made.
“All that we are demanding is that the ultra-Orthodox not have a monopoly on Judaism and that the government recognise that there is more than one way to be Jewish in Israel and abroad,” said Rozenbaum.
Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz called the protest a “provocation” and said the demonstrators had “desecrated the Torah.”
Netanyahu’s office said: “The unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there.
“The prime minister and the speaker of (parliament) said yesterday to the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements that now is the time for dialogue and not for unnecessary friction,” it said.
“The unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise.”
The Western Wall, one of the last remnants of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD, is administered by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment, who enforce a strict interpretation of religious tradition. After years of discussions and protests, the government in January approved an agreement to create a third space at the wall open to both women and men.