Several thousand ultra-Orthodox protesters effectively blocked Jewish women activists campaigning for equal worship rights at the Western Wall from holding a monthly prayer session on Monday at the holy site.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said members and supporters of the Women of the Wall group were escorted by police to a spot a short distance from the Western Wall “to make sure there would be no incidents.”
A spokeswoman for the movement, which is challenging the Orthodox monopoly over rites at the Western Wall, called the incident a setback after a court decided in April the women could legally don prayer shawls that Orthodox ritual says are meant for men only.
Prayer rites at the site, revered by Jews as a perimeter wall of the Biblical Temple, are part of a long struggle between Israel's secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority over lifestyle in the Jewish state, where institutions such as marriage, divorce and burial are controlled by rabbis.
Women pray at a separate section, set apart from men. Women of the Wall want to be able to practice the rituals reserved by Orthodox law for men - such as wearing prayer shawls and reading out loud from the Torah, or holy scriptures - in their section.
“It's the first time in 25 years we could not reach the plaza,” of the wall, Shira Pruce, a group spokeswoman said. “They [police] held up back. It's our right to go there.”
The 300 activists instead prayed some 50 meters (54 yards) from the Western Wall. Some of the ultra-Orthodox protesters, who included women, threw eggs at the group, and cursed them and police. Rosenfeld said four of the ultra-Orthodox demonstrators were arrested.
Tensions were running high at the Western Wall, a day after the Israeli Cabinet approved a draft law to abolish wholesale military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.
“We hope soldiers will die,” one ultra-Orthodox youth shouted at a member of the paramilitary border police trying to block him from entering the Western Wall plaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked former cabinet minister and Jewish leader Natan Sharansky to seek a compromise to permit the Women of the Wall to hold prayers without exacerbating tensions with the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Sharansky has proposed a formula to widen a separate zone at the Western Wall once designated for egalitarian prayer, a suggestion neither side nor the government has yet embraced.
Also spurring Israel's drive to resolve the dispute is the support for the Women of the Wall movement in the United States in the influential Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, which do not adhere to the Orthodox practice of gender separation in prayer.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, an Orthodox rabbi officially in charge of the Western Wall, told Reuters he objected to the activists trying to “impose their own customs” at the Western Wall, but voiced support for government efforts to seek a compromise.
“The Western Wall should be a unifying site. Everyone needs to give in a little,” he said.