JERUSALEM – Dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews hurled stones and slashed the tires of buses bearing ads promoting female worship at a key Jerusalem holy site, Israeli police said Tuesday.
The attack, which happened on Monday night in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, underscores the still simmering tensions in Israel over religious extremists who want to separate the sexes in public spaces.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police units were dispatched to quell the violence in Mea Shearim where about 50 men slashed tires and pelted the buses with stones.
The ads were posted by the group Women of the Wall, which seeks to achieve gender equality at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray. The advertisements showed girls and women wearing prayer shawls and holding a Torah scroll — rituals seen by many Orthodox Jews as reserved for men only.
Video footage on the YNet news site showed the words "end the obscene pictures" spray-painted on a bus.
The ads aimed to promote Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls at the Western Wall. The coming-of-age ceremonies for girls are only allowed to be held at a nearby prayer site, designated for worshippers who don't follow the Orthodox tradition adhered to at the main area of the Western Wall.
For boys, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are held at the main Wall area. The Women of the Wall does not consider the nearby area an appropriate worship site.
"This is only about gender roles and discrimination against women and the image of women," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. "If those were boys in the ads, this would not be a news story."
Many ultra-Orthodox oppose the Women of the Wall's struggle for rights to equal worship at the Western Wall and view the group as provocative. The women have endured arrest, heckling and legal battles in their struggle to worship at the Wall as men do.
The extremists have faced criticism in recent years from Israel's predominantly secular society, which has complained about attempts to ban mixing of the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces. Ultra-Orthodox have defaced posters and billboards bearing photos of women, which they consider immodest.
A court last year decided that the women should be permitted to pray as they choose but the Women of the Wall says it is still prevented from worshipping with a Torah scroll at the Wall.
About half of the Women of the Wall ads, which have run on dozens of buses since the campaign began on Oct. 12, have been vandalized, Pruce said, citing the company that handles the advertisements. The ad campaign was the group's first and it had no role in deciding what routes the ads would run, Pruce said.
The religious practice at the Western Wall follows Orthodox traditions, meaning wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls and reading from Torah scrolls is reserved exclusively for men.
By contrast, the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, the largest denominations in the United States which are marginal in Israel, allow women to wear prayer shawls, be ordained as rabbis, lead services and read from the Torah.