It was difficult to hear the voices of the women in prayer shawls over the shouts from the crowd outraged at what they were doing: worshiping as men do at Judaism’s holiest prayer site.
Police set up barricades and deployed hundreds of officers to protect the women from the ultra-Orthodox Jews -- some hurling eggs and curses, some yelling “Death to the Reform” -- who gathered July 8 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to protest women wearing garments and performing rituals that tradition reserves for men.
The clash was the latest flare-up over the power the religious hold in Israel. The Women of the Wall began its crusade for equal worship at the shrine 25 years ago, and it’s been gaining momentum as a combination of forces chips away at the influence of the ultra-Orthodox, now out of government for the first time in a decade.
“We don’t need one authority, one Jesus figure, a community of Jesus figures, interpreting God for the rest of the community,” said Susan Silverman, a Jerusalem rabbi and sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman, who was arrested at the wall in February on grounds she disturbed the peace.
Warriors for religious pluralism are an odd sight in Israel, where Jews tend to be traditional or not at all devout. Their campaign is getting a tailwind from a public that’s grown less tolerant of privileges the ultra-Orthodox enjoy and from a justice system sometimes more liberal than Israeli society.
“I think the broad sentiment against the ultra-Orthodox turns things that the ultra-Orthodox oppose into things that should be supported,” said Yedidia Stern, director of research at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
While the ultra-Orthodox make up less than 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million people, they wield great influence, largely because they often control enough seats in parliament to give prime ministers a majority.
Called haredim in Hebrew, for those who tremble, they usually live in isolated communities and strictly separate the sexes. The government excuses most of ultra-Orthodox men from military service, subsidizes their religious institutions and helps to support their families.
The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s exclusive right to perform marriages, divorces and burials has fueled frictions with secular Israelis, about 40 percent of the population. Some modern Orthodox also resent the allowances made for the most conservative Jews.
January elections cost the ultra-Orthodox considerable clout as secular and modern Orthodox parties allied to keep them out of the government.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid has cut funding to their community in the proposed budget. The Justice Ministry recently ruled against the gender segregation rabbis have tried to impose on some buses, sidewalks and other public spaces. And Israel’s Cabinet approved a bill to make military or community service mandatory for most ultra-Orthodox men.
The main plaza spreading out from the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish temple, is divided into gender-segregated sections, just as Orthodox synagogues are.
The Women of the Wall gather there on the first day of the month in the lunar Hebrew calendar. Though they stay in the women’s section, they perform male rituals, wearing skull caps and small boxes called tefillin that contain scrolls inscribed with verses from the Jewish holy book, the Torah.
Shmuel Litoff, an ultra-Orthodox man who has observed the wall protests, sees the women as provocateurs.
“It’s not a question of Jewish law, it’s a question of tradition,” he said. “If I go into a mosque wearing shoes, is that a problem?” he asked, referring to the Muslim tradition of removing footwear before entering a prayer site. “The wall is a synagogue, and there was always a way to pray in a synagogue.”
A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed 48 percent of Israeli Jews support the women’s quest, with 38 percent opposed. The survey of 600 people in the last week of April had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.
The lack of religious pluralism in Israel drives a wedge between the country and the non-Orthodox who constitute the majority of the world’s Jews, said Gilad Kariv, a rabbi and executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.
“When they see women with prayer shawls prevented from praying near the wall, it’s hard to identify with this holy place,” he said.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the women had the right to pray freely at the wall, if they don’t offend “local custom” -- a phrase it didn’t define.
Over the past year, police arrested dozens of women on grounds they disturbed the peace. The women scored a victory in April, when an observant Jerusalem judge ruled they weren’t causing unrest or violating the law by praying at the wall “according to their custom.”
That was a red flag for some ultra-Orthodox. At the monthly service May 10, thousands flooded the wall plaza, some spitting and throwing chairs, and calling the women whores and lesbians.
On July 8, hundreds of black-hatted young men roared, clapped and sang to drown out the women’s prayers. In a sign the court ruling didn’t end the women’s battle, police barred them from the women’s section at the plaza where they usually pray.
Police officer Hagit Rappaport Ben Hamo said thousands of ultra-Orthodox girls had responded to their rabbis’ call to pack the women’s section, making it too dangerous to let any more in.
“We’re at the back of the bus, and it’s not even upholstered,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s director. “It’s capitulation to hooliganism.”
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deputized Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to find a way to hold egalitarian worship at the wall. Sharansky proposed renovating an adjacent area for pluralistic prayer and linking it structurally to the main plaza.
The plan would require construction near a contested holy site known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary. Past work there has provoked unrest by Palestinians who lay claim to the compound, which Israel captured along with the rest of east Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967.
While obstacles remain, the women are cheered by the positive momentum. Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said she thinks the group is “part of a bigger phenomenon that is disturbing the Israeli public.”
“When I was arrested on Oct. 16, 2012, not one word of this got into the Israel press,” Hoffman said. “Not a word. Nothing. Now I can’t get the journalists out of my house.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org