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 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 the liberal stream. Since 1988, its members have come to the holy site 11 times a year to pray.
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.
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 percent 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 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.
Many members and supporters of Women of the Wall are American and are appalled at the authorities’ response to their actions.
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.