Police and ultra-Orthodox protesters clash over feminist prayers in Jerusalem

Tensions linked to Women of the Wall group holding prayer service near Western Wall

Police clashed with hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters on Friday morning at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem’s old city.

The religious protestors were trying to prevent the feminist Women of the Wall group from holding a prayer service close to the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, to mark the start of the Jewish month of Kislev.

One of the women was briefly detained after trying to smuggle a small Torah scroll into the prayer service.

Orthodox custom prevents women reading from the Torah scroll and the Orthodox establishment terms the monthly feminist prayer services “a desecration against the holiest site in Judaism”, a relic of the Biblical temple compound.


Ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians had planned to join the Friday morning protest after Gilad Kariv, a Knesset member from the coalition Labour party, himself a Reform rabbi who had previously headed the Reform movement in Israel, had said he would participate in the women's service and hand them a Torah scroll using his parliamentary immunity.

In the end, both Mr Kariv and the ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians decided not to attend, heeding a plea from president Yitzhak Herzog who was trying to defuse tension and prevent violence at the holy site.

“The possibility of elected officials brawling at the remains of the temple, Judaism’s holiest place and where Jews around the world look towards, gives me great anguish,” Mr Herzog said, “especially when we remember how fights at this sight ended 2,000 years ago”, in a reference to the destruction of the temple.

Six-Day war

Ever since 1967, when Israel captured Jerusalem's old city from Jordan in the Six-Day war, the Western Wall plaza has operated as an Orthodox synagogue with strict separation of the sexes. The Women of the Wall's monthly prayers often end with arrests of women who don prayer shawls or read publicly from the holy scriptures.

The protests have caused tension with diaspora Jewry, particularly the powerful American Jewish community where Reform and Conservative branches, which favour egalitarian services, are a majority.

Mr Herzog said he would hold meetings next week in an effort to revive a compromise deal reached in 2016 that was ditched by then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

The plan called for the area running along the Western wall to be divided into three equal parts – male, female and egalitarian.

In August, diaspora affairs minister Nahman Shai said that reviving the agreement is on the cabinet’s agenda and enjoys wide backing in the coalition, including from prime minister Naftali Bennett, himself an observant Jew.

“The events of today next to the Western Wall strengthened my belief that we must hurry in renewing the Western Wall compromise plan,” Mr Shai said.