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Ultra-orthodox protesters mob women praying in Israel

JERUSALEM — Heeding calls from their rabbis, thousands of ultra-Orthodox women and teenage girls flooded the Western Wall on Friday morning to prevent close access by a group of women who pray in garments traditionally used by men, while hundreds of black-hatted Orthodox men heckled the group from behind, whistling, catcalling, and throwing water, candy, and a few chairs at them.

Scores of uniformed police locked hands in cordons to protect the group of about 100 women from Women of the Wall, in a standoff that exemplified the broad battle in Israel on identity and religion in the public sphere, where holy sites and rites such as marriage, divorce, and conversion have for decades been controlled by the ultra-Orthodox minority, known as Haredim.

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The confrontation came after a court ruled last month that the women should be allowed to wear prayer shawls and sing out loud at the wall, challenging years of policy and practice that had required visitors to the wall to follow ultra-Orthodox custom. Recently, women in the group had been arrested as they prayed at the wall, sparking outcry among Jews worldwide and prompting a government initiative to reexamine the rules at the site.

‘‘All this commotion because of a group of women who want to pray to God,’’ Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, said after the confrontation. ‘‘We hope that the government won’t succumb to any kinds of threats or bullying and they will let us continue praying. This is part of the social battle. They need to get used to us.’’

Three ultra-Orthodox men were arrested and two others detained for questioning in the course of the confrontation.

Israel’s government is developing new regulations governing prayer at the site, a remnant of the retaining wall surrounding the ancient Temple Mount and a place revered by Jews around the world.

Earlier this week, Israel’s attorney general advised government ministers that they should immediately ban gender segregation on buses, in cemeteries, at health clinics, and on the radio. At the same time, the new government coalition has vowed to end draft exemptions for yeshiva students, to overhaul curriculum of ultrareligious schools, to curtail the subsidies their families rely on, and bring far more Orthodox men into the workforce and tax base.

Much of that was in the background at the Western Wall on Friday, as the ultra-Orthodox protesters shouted ‘‘The holiness of the place!’’


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