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Despite Israeli PM's plea, liberal Jews protest at holy site

JERUSALEM — Leaders of U.S. and Israeli liberal Jewish movements rallied for equal prayer rights at a Jerusalem holy site Wednesday, marching past ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters who clashed with them and tried to snatch Torah scrolls out of their arms.

The liberal groups ignored a suggestion by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Reform and Conservative streams not proceed with the public protest.

The heads of the two movements joined the liberal women's prayer group Women of the Wall in the procession to the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical temple complex and the holiest site where Jews can pray. Several hundred people participated, holding prayers and demanding that Israel finally implement a government decision to officially establish a mixed-gender prayer area at the site.

"It's a disgrace! There is no other way to define it," said a statement from the Union for Reform Judaism. Orthodox Judaism requires men and women to pray separately.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews cursed and pushed the marchers as they carried Torah scrolls to the holy site and into the women's prayer section, an act that is prohibited at the site. The Western Wall is run by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who opposes liberal Jewish customs there.

"Women of the Wall today offended thousands of male and female worshippers when they held a mixed prayer protest in the women's section, and debased Torah scrolls," said Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich.

In January, Israel's government agreed to officially recognize a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — a compromise reached after Israeli and American Jewish leaders negotiated with Israeli authorities for more than three years.

But the prayer site was never established. Ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections to the decision after they initially endorsed it.

Liberal Jewish groups have accused Netanyahu of delaying the decision on a mixed-gender prayer area so as not to threaten the stability of his narrow coalition, which is propped up by two ultra-Orthodox parties. Last month, the liberal Jewish groups petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to implement the decision.

Netanyahu's office sharply criticized the liberal Jewish groups' prayer demonstration Wednesday.

"The unfortunate incident this morning at the Western Wall does not help advance a solution for prayer arrangements there," the prime minister's office said in a statement. "The unilateral violation of the status quo at the Western Wall this morning undermines our ongoing efforts to reach a compromise."

Netanyahu had told non-Orthodox Jewish leaders at a gathering of the organization on Tuesday that the issue was best resolved quietly.