JERUSALEM (AP) — Forming human chains and using metal barriers, Israeli police held back thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters who tried to prevent a liberal Jewish women's group from praying at a sensitive holy site Friday, the first time police have come down on the side of the women and not the protesters.
The reversal followed a court order backing the right of the women to pray at the Western Wall using religious rituals Orthodox Jews insist should be practiced only by men.
Wearing prayer shawls, phylacteries and skull caps traditionally reserved for men under strict Orthodox tenets, the women sang and prayed out loud. A girl celebrating her Bat Mitzvah was hoisted on a chair as the women danced, clapping their hands and singing.
A short distance away, ultra-Orthodox men yelled obscenities and scuffled with police. Some cursed and spat at the women and threw chairs and other objects.
"It is very painful to see the Western Wall turn into a battlefield instead of a holy prayer site," Jerusalem Police chief Yossi Parienti told reporters.
The "Women of the Wall" group has been holding monthly prayer services on the first day of the Hebrew month at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for more than two decades. Accused by ultra-Orthodox leaders of violating "local custom" at the holy site, many of the group's members have been arrested.
The women have also faced heckling and legal battles in their struggle to worship at the wall — the holiest place where Jews can pray — as men do. Then last month a Jerusalem court instructed police to stop detaining the women.
On Friday, police protected the women and arrested three ultra-Orthodox men for disorderly conduct, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
"It's a historic moment," said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for Women of the Wall. "The police did an amazing job protecting women to pray freely at the Western Wall. This is justice."
Israeli media reported that some rabbis called on followers to flood the Western Wall to try to block the women from reaching the site. TV footage showed girls praying at the wall as chaos erupted behind them.
Police formed a ring around the women in the packed Western Wall plaza, with some shoving back ultra-Orthodox men. A human chain of female police officers encircled a group of young female protesters.
Pruce, a 31-year-old New Jersey native, said police escorted the Women of the Wall out of the area after they finished their service and boarded them on buses, which were then pelted with stones as they left the Old City.
She said the group was taking "small steps and with time will pray with Torah scrolls." The ultra-Orthodox men who oppose them will "have to get used to it," she said.
The dispute is part of a wider culture clash that has triggered a backlash against Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.
The plaza in front of the Western Wall, a remnant of the biblical Jewish Temples, is marked off into two distinct sections, one for male worshippers and the other for women. Until now, women have had to abide by the Orthodox strictures of prayer.
Under Orthodox Jewish practice, only men are permitted to wear prayer shawls and skullcaps, and most Orthodox Jews insist that only men carry a Torah scroll. By contrast, the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, the largest denominations in the United States, allow women to wear prayer shawls, be ordained as rabbis, lead services and read from the Torah.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment opposes any inroads from these groups, fearing their customs and authority could be eroded. They maintain that visitors to the Western Wall, whose rabbi is ultra-Orthodox, must respect local practices.
The Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has in the past called the women's group a "provocation," tried to ease tensions Friday.
"I am hurting. Hurting and crying over what happened here today," he told the Jerusalem Post newspaper. "We don't want a Western Wall of disagreement."
Yossi Deutsch, an ultra-Orthodox member of the Jerusalem municipality, agreed. "I am saddened that they took this place that is the holiest site for the people of Israel and turned it into a fighting arena where people throw coffee at each other and throw bottles at each other," he said.
Israeli officials and lawmakers have been attempting to find a compromise that will satisfy both the women's group and the ultra-Orthodox. They have proposed establishing a new section at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. The proposal, if implemented, would be a victory for the more liberal streams of Judaism, which have been battling to be granted recognition in Israel.
The Women of the Wall insist on their right to pray as they want in the current women's section.
The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens. For most of the last three decades, they have served in coalition governments, securing vast budgets for religious schools and exemptions from mandatory military service for tens of thousands of young men in full-time religious studies.
The system has bred widespread resentment among the secular and modern Orthodox majority. It became a central issue in January parliamentary elections, and ultra-Orthodox parties were eventually left out of the government.
Many Israelis also feel the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their values on the rest of society, with their activists pushing for gender-segregated buses and sidewalks, and trying to force women to dress modestly.
This week, Israel's attorney general urged Cabinet ministers to take measures to end gender segregation. On Thursday, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she was drafting a bill that would make the segregation and humiliation of women in public a criminal offense.
"The dismissal of women from the public sphere harms not only their dignity, but also harms us as a society that aspires toward equality," Livni wrote on her Facebook page.
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this report.