Jerusalem - Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to block a liberal women's group from praying at the Western Wall on Friday morning, creating a tense standoff in the latest flash point of a broader battle over religion and identity that has engulfed Israel.
Heeding calls from their rabbis, religious teenage girls turned up in large numbers to protest the group's insistence on praying at the wall in religious garb traditionally worn by men. The girls crammed the women's section directly in front of the wall by 6:30 a.m., forcing the liberal women to conduct their prayer service farther back on the plaza. There, hundreds of police officers locked arms in cordons to hold back throngs of black-hatted Orthodox men who whistled, catcalled, and threw water, candy and a few plastic chairs.
The fight over how women pray at one of Judaism's holiest sites is a singular fault line among many. Friday's mass demonstration at the wall was widely seen as part of the intensifying culture war that poses a threat, if internal, to Israel's social cohesion.
"We are looking at a process in which the public disdain with the way religion and state matters have occurred in Israel has reached a peak," said Rabbi Uri Regev, the founder of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious freedom and equality.
But Rabbi Israel Eichler, an ultra-Orthodox member of Parliament, warned that "if the state of Israel fights" the ultra-Orthodox, in Hebrew called Haredim, "it may win, but it will be erased from the face of the Earth."
"There were thousands of seminary girls there today," he said. "Each one of them will have 10 children. That is our victory."
The showdown on Friday came two days after Israel's attorney general ordered government ministries to end gender segregation in buses, cemeteries, health clinics and radio airwaves, and as Parliament is drafting sweeping legislation to integrate the swelling ultra-Orthodox minority into the army and work force, while cutting back the subsidies their large families rely on. Following decades in which ultra-Orthodox politicians provided critical swing votes in exchange for control over religious institutions, they were shut out of the governing coalition that formed this spring and have become an increasingly shrill part of the opposition.
Most Israelis care far less about the rules at the kotel, or Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the ancient Temple, than the ultra-Orthodox control of marriage, conversion and other matters that affect daily life. But a spate of arrests last fall of women wearing prayer shawls at the wall sparked an outcry from Jews abroad. That prompted Israel's government to develop a long-term plan that would provide a new space where men and women can pray together and as they wish.
Buoyed by the recent court ruling allowing them to use prayer garments traditionally reserved for men, the women's group, called Women of the Wall, has vowed to continue the monthly services it has held for a quarter century.
Friday was the first time ultra-Orthodox girls and women showed up in force to block them.
"I'm here so they won't be," said one of the teenagers, who like a dozen others interviewed spoke on the condition that her name not be published. "It's forbidden for them to be here. It's allowed by the court, but it's forbidden by God. If I'm here, there won't be room for them."
The girls, who woke before dawn and poured onto buses from schools across Jerusalem as well as the ultrareligious suburbs of Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit, said they had come because their leaders ordered them to.
Among the liberal women, a smaller-than-usual group of perhaps 100 made it to the Women of the Wall prayer circle, where much of the spirited chanting was drowned out by the boisterous men. Three of the men were arrested and two others detained for questioning." Every time, there's another stumbling block," said Haviva Ner David, a rabbi and mother of seven who has been praying with Women of the Wall for two decades. "There are more non-Orthodox Jews than there are Haredi Jews in Israel, but they're able to gather more troops."
As the crowds dispersed, Yossi Parienti, commander of Jerusalem's police force, said it was "painful and a pity to see the Western Wall become a field of battle instead of a holy place of prayer."
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation - which controls the site - said, "We must find a solution that is acceptable to all, or to the majority, so that the Western Wall does not look as it did today."
The heightened attention to the wall comes after more than two years of friction with the ultra-Orthodox over gender in the public sphere. Women have been barred from speaking at conferences, and an 8-year-old girl was spit on for dress that her ultra-Orthodox neighbors considered immodest. Vandals routinely black out women's faces on advertising billboards.
Menachem Friedman, a sociology professor at Bar Ilan University who has studied the Haredi society, said that while a universal military draft and cut in subsidies are more substantive issues, "gender is the most vulnerable."
"The most threatening thing for the Haredi society is the mixture," Professor Friedman said. "Sex is always something we can't control - we have to defend against it, we have to separate, to make it very clear separation between men and women. Why? Because sex is really penetrating inside everyone, even the most sacred man is not protected. That is the main idea of ultra-Orthodoxy."
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a law professor and director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar Ilan University, said: "What's at stake here is the very characteristic of the state of Israel. Are we part of the Western world or are we part of the fundamentalist world?"
Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.