JERUSALEM - Israeli security guards at the Western Wall on Friday searched women worshippers arriving at the holiest place where Jews can pray for a seemingly inoffensive object — the Jewish prayer shawl, which under the Orthodox tradition can be worn only by men.
Once the shawls were found, dozens of women had to deposit them before proceeding to pray in the section reserved for women. A few, who managed to sneak the shawls in under their coats and wrapped them around their shoulders, were promptly evicted or detained.
Similar scenes have played out almost a dozen times every year since the group known as Women of the Wall was first established nearly 25 years ago.
Its members have endured arrests, heckling and legal battles in a struggle to attain what they consider their inalienable right — to pray and worship at the Western Wall like men do.
Under Israel's predominantly Orthodox Jewish tradition, only men may wear a prayer shawl, a skullcap and phylacteries. Liberal Reform Judaism, marginal in Israel but the largest denomination in the United States, allows women to practice the same way as men do in Orthodox Judaism: they may be ordained as rabbis, read from the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and wear prayer shawls.
The multi-denominational Women of the Wall adheres to that liberal stream. Since 1988, its members have come to the holy site 11 times a year to pray on the first day of the new Jewish month, except on the New Year.
The police know they are coming and are on the lookout. The group's members have been repeatedly detained, as soon as they are perceived to be offending Orthodox sensibilities — such as carrying a Torah scroll or if they try to drape themselves in the shawls. They are usually released after a few hours.
They have never been charged — evidence, the women say, that what they are doing is not illegal.
"We want to have the ability to pray out loud, to wear a prayer shawl, to read the Torah. And we want to do it without fear at the Western Wall," said Anat Hoffman, the group's chairwoman.
Opponents see the Jerusalem-based group, which has hundreds of members and supporters, as provocateurs or kooky agitators. Supporters say they are civil rights activists working to achieve equality. Angry worshippers have hurled plastic chairs at them while others have yelled and taunted them.
Hoffman, who has been detained several times in the past, was held in 2010 for several hours after she brought a Torah scroll to the Western Wall — another violation for Orthodox Jews, who do not allow women to hold the Torah.
A video of the event shows police attempting to pry the scroll away from her as she shouts back: "It's mine." Hoffman also spent a night in jail in October, when she was banished by a court from the Wall for 30 days.
She says a lack of religious pluralism in Israel has prevented the group from achieving its goals.
While most Israelis are secular, Judaism has a formal place in the country's affairs and Orthodox rabbis strictly govern religious events such as weddings, divorces, and burials for the Jewish population. Also, the ultra-Orthodox are perennial kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics, though they make up only about 10 per cent of the country's population.
Israel's Orthodox establishment was also granted responsibility for the Western Wall and seeks to ensure its traditions are followed there.
"We try to follow the customs that our grandfathers did, what was done 100 years ago, 200 years ago, and we try to keep extremism away," said the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.
The Women of the Wall "insist on coming here just to stoke the flames, to cause a provocation," he said, adding that if other customs were permitted, "there would be chaos."
The police say they are enforcing a Supreme Court decision from 2003, which ruled that allowing the group to pray with the shawls at the Western Wall constituted a danger to public safety. The women have been offered an alternative place nearby where they can don the shawls, wear phylacteries and read from the Torah. They use the place but continue to demand full access to the Wall.
More liberal streams of Judaism have been hard-pressed just to be recognized in Israel, which only this year granted funding for non-Orthodox rabbis. The plight of the Women of the Wall also highlights a growing rift between the world's two largest Jewish communities, the one in Israel and the one in the U.S.
Reform and Conservative streams, which are large in the U.S., have been at odds with Orthodox Israeli rabbis in Israel. Many members and supporters of Women of the Wall are American and are appalled at the authorities' reaction to their attempts to wear the shawls and pray at the Wall.
Laura Geller, a rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, was one of the women forced to leave her prayer shawl behind on Friday.
"It's interesting that Israel is one of the few countries in the world where I can't be the Jew that I am," she said, a blue and white skullcap placed atop her grey curls. "The Wall needs to be big enough for us to find a way to share it."
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