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Women In Prayer Shawls Detained At Judaism's Holiest Site

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Women In Prayer Shawls Detained At Judaism's Holiest Site

Middle East

Women In Prayer Shawls Detained At Judaism's Holiest Site

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You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

In Jerusalem today, 10 women were detained by police for wearing the tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, while praying at the Western Wall. The Women of the Wall have been fighting for years for permission to worship just as men do at Judaism's holiest site.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, religious authorities block their efforts.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Many of the women here today gather regularly on the first day of the Jewish calendar month to pray, and just as regularly, they are detained by police. According to religious law, women are not supposed to wear religious items such as prayer shawls at the Western Wall. That's the reading of the Orthodox rabbi in charge of the site, and his decision is enforced by the police.

Anat Hoffman is leader of Women of the Wall.

ANAT HOFFMAN: Secular Israel, the democratic Jewish state of Israel, has given the keys to the holiest site of the Jewish people and given it to one rabbi who belongs to less than 8 percent of Israel's population.

ABRAMSON: Hoffman had a male friend sneak in prayer shawls because police have confiscated them in the past. Then she and her supporters entered the women's section, donned their shawls and began to pray.


ABRAMSON: The security force for the site moved in quietly and told some of the women to come with them, but the women refused and sat on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Police have arrested women for wearing prayer shawls here in the past but left them alone for the time being. On the men's side of a mesh barrier, some male supporters chanted along with the women. But one ultra-Orthodox man began yelling at them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Saying reformed Jews don't belong here. Israel's ultra-Orthodox do not recognize the more liberal strains of Judaism. The women continued praying for a solid hour, glad to have gotten so far. The group believes the police held back because six former Israeli paratroopers showed up in support. Men like Yitzhak Yifat helped take back the wall, which was under the control of Jordanian troops during the 1967 War.

YITZHAK YIFAT: Everybody can pray here, no?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, until today, no. (Foreign language spoken)

YIFAT: I'm sorry. (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: But once the crowd of supporters and media dispersed, police stepped in and grabbed 10 women, including Lior Nevo, a rabbinical student.

LIOR NEVO: I don't know. I haven't been told anything. I'm not arrested, apparently.

ABRAMSON: But you're being taken away.

NEVO: I don't know. They haven't told me anything. (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Police said the women were being detained for disturbing the peace by wearing the tallit at the wall. One concern is protecting the sensitivities of the many ultra-Orthodox who pray at the wall, and that includes many women. One, who would not identify herself, says devout Jews follow the teachings of their rabbis.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This, according to the Torah, is not correct. Just because a few women decide that they want to do this because it makes them feel better, because it makes them feel more important?

ABRAMSON: After a circuitous court battle, the Women of the Wall have been offered an alternative site for worship away from the wall proper, something they refer to as the back of the bus with new upholstery. The rabbi in charge of the wall hasn't budged, although police did refrain today from carting women away during prayer. The Israeli parliament has basically punted on the issue. Meanwhile, the Women of the Wall say they'll be back next month to try again.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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