Israeli police detain 5 women at Jerusalem holy site over religious rituals

Israeli police on Thursday detained five women at a Jerusalem holy site for performing religious rituals there that ultra-Orthodox Jews say are reserved for men.

The detentions come just a day after Israeli authorities proposed a compromise to diffuse tensions over the issue of women's worship at the Western Wall. The proposal, which still has to be approved by the government, envisions establishing a new section at the site where men and women can pray together.

About 120 women arrived Thursday morning for their monthly prayer service and police arrested five for wearing prayer shawls, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said an ultra-Orthodox man was also detained for burning a prayer book in protest.

The Western Wall, the only remaining part of the biblical Temple compound, is the holiest site where Jews can pray. It is currently divided into men's and women's sections. Orthodox rabbis, who control Israel's religious institutions, oppose mixed-gender prayers.

If the new proposal by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the semi-governmental Jewish Agency, goes through, it would mark a significant victory for liberal streams of Judaism in their long quest for recognition.

"The events at the Western Wall today are one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife," Sharansky's agency said in a statement.

While most Israelis are secular, Judaism has a formal place in the country's affairs, and Orthodox rabbis govern events such as weddings, divorces and burials for the Jewish population.

The ultra-Orthodox, who follow a strict brand of Judaism that promotes religious studies over work, military service and other involvement in modern society, wield vast political power — although they make up only about 10 percent of the population.

The Orthodox rabbinate has fiercely resisted inroads by the progressive Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, refusing to recognize their rulings, conversions or ceremonies as religiously valid. This has led to a deepening rift with American Jews, most of who are affiliated with the liberal streams.

Sharansky's proposal aims to soothe over the differences by creating a permanent area for mixed-gender and women-led prayer. It would be located in an area on a lower level, where limited mixed-gender prayer already is allowed, but which mainly serves as an archaeological site.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform Jewish movement, applauded the initiative while also slamming Thursday's arrest.

"We are deeply disappointed because we believe that in order to move forward with any concept of compromise of joint vision to this site a few basic conditions must be met," he said.

"The left hand of the government is detaining the women while the right hand of the government is seeking ways to open doors," Kariv added. "The new government has to decide if they truly want to seek a comprehensive solution or if all they are trying to do is to please world Jewry for a few months."