JERUSALEM – Israeli police with metal barriers and human chains on Friday held back thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters who tried to prevent a liberal Jewish women's group from praying at a key holy site, the first time police have come down on the side of the women and not the protesters.
The switch followed a court order backing the right of the women to pray at the Western Wall in the Old City with practices Orthodox Jews insist are the role of men alone.
The "Women of the Wall" group has been holding monthly prayer services on the first day of the Hebrew month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for more than two decades, wearing prayer shawls and performing religious rituals reserved for men under Orthodox Judaism. Accused by ultra-Orthodox leaders of violating "local custom" at the holy site, many of the group's members have been arrested.
On Friday the tables were turned because of the court ruling. Police protected the women and arrested three ultra-Orthodox men for disorderly conduct, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
It's a turning point for the group. Along with the arrests, the women have faced heckling and legal battles in a struggle to attain what they say is their right: to worship at the wall -- the holiest place where Jews can pray -- as men do. Then last month a Jerusalem court instructed police to stop detaining the women.
"It's a historic moment," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. "The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice."
The plaza just in front of the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish Temples, is marked off into two distinct sections, one for men and the other for women, where they pray separately. Up to now, women have had to abide by the Orthodox strictures of prayer.
Under Orthodox Jewish practice, only men may wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, and most Orthodox Jews insist that only men should carry a Torah scroll. The more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, marginal in Israel but the largest denominations in the United States, allow women to practice the same way as men do in Orthodox Judaism. They are ordained as rabbis, lead services, read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment opposes any inroads from these groups, fearing their customs and authority could be eroded. They have argued that visitors to the Western Wall, whose rabbi is ultra-Orthodox, must respect the local practices.
Israeli media reported that before Friday's prayer service, some rabbis called on followers to flood the Western Wall in a bid to block the women from reaching the site.
Israeli TV video showed a packed Western Wall plaza with police forming a ring around the women and others shoving back ultra-Orthodox men. Female police officers had aligned in a human chain around young women protesters who were peering out at the Women of the Wall.
Pruce said police escorted the Women of the Wall out of the area after they finished their service and boarded them on buses, which were then pelted with stones as they left the Old City.
The Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has in the past called the women's group a "provocation," tried to ease tensions at the holy place. "No one in Israel wants a disagreement at the Western Wall," Rabinowitz told Israel Army Radio.
Israeli officials and lawmakers have been attempting to find a compromise that will satisfy both the women's group and the ultra-Orthodox. They have proposed establishing a new section at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. The proposal, if implemented, would be seen as a victory for the more liberal streams of Judaism, which have been battling to be granted recognition in Israel.
The Women of the Wall, in contrast, insist on their right to pray as they want in the current women's section.
It's part of a wider culture clash that has triggered a backlash against Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.
The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens. For most of the last three decades, they have served in coalition governments, securing vast budgets for religious schools and exemptions from mandatory military service for tens of thousands of young men in full-time religious studies.
The system has bred widespread resentment among the secular and modern Orthodox majority. It became a central issue in January parliamentary elections, and ultra-Orthodox parties were eventually left out of the government.
Many Israelis also feel the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their values on the rest of society, with their activists pushing for gender-segregated buses and sidewalks, defacing billboards showing women or trying to force women to dress modestly.
This week, Israel's attorney general urged Cabinet ministers to take measures to end gender segregation. Then on Thursday, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she has instructed her staff to draft a bill that would make the segregation and humiliation of women in public a criminal offense.
"The dismissal of women from the public sphere harms not only their dignity, but also harms us as a society that aspires toward equality," Livni wrote on her Facebook page.