The shrines of Jerusalem’s Old City have been known throughout centuries as, among other things, tinderboxes of inter-religious bickering, violence, and bloodshed.
On Friday at the Western Wall, several hundred female Jewish worshipers known as “Women of the Wall’’ were targeted by rock and bottle throwing from a crowd of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators outraged by their use of prayer shawls and phylacteries traditionally restricted to men.
The image at the Western Wall evoked scenes of civil rights struggles form the 1960s. Some 500 Israeli police officers on hand formed a human barrier between the women worshipers and the surging crush of demonstrators, who taunted the women and blew whistles to drown out the worship.
Police said that about 2,000 ultra-Orthdox women initially arrived at the prayer site at the urging of rabbis in order to block the Women of the Wall group from reaching the massive stones. The peak of tension came after the hour long prayer service, as the women exited the Western Wall plaza and boarded armored buses, which were then pelted by rock throwing and spitting ultra-Orthodox demonstrators.
Police made three arrests. Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that the presence of Israeli security forces prevented the outbreak of violent riot. He predicted that the confrontation will to escalate next time if a compromise is not found.
The prayer service marked the first time that women from non-Orthodox Jewish denominations held services at the Western Wall with the backing of a Supreme Court ruling instructing police that they be allowed avail themselves of the egalitarian rituals long accepted by Conservative and Reform denominations based in North America.
The group has been praying at the wall for 24 years monthly. The Friday service came a day after Israel’s national holiday to mark the capture of the Old City 46 years ago from Jordan. Indeed, Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman likened the milestone this morning to the capture of wall by Israeli paratroopers in the 1967 Arab Israeli War. “We are continuing in the path of the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, expressed regret over the day’s events in an video interview with the Jerusalem Post.
“This isn’t the Western Wall we prayed for,’’ he said. “There is a place at the Western Wall for every Jew. I’m not sure there is a place for every opinion. That is simply a recipe for an explosion. There is no such option.”
Amid concern that the controversy will alienate conservative and reform Jews from Israel, the government has proposed as a compromise to set up a separate prayer area along the Western Wall.
The dispute could widen an already existing gap over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians between the more liberal Jewish community in North America and Israeli Jewry, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
“That is what makes this such a dangerous moment,’’ he said. “This is turning into an increasingly ugly confrontation between streams of Judaism. “The Western Wall, which is supposed to unite Jews, is increasingly dividing us.’’