Western Wall Arrests: Israel Doesn't Arrest Women Protesters In a Big Step For Religious Equality

Friday is the first day of a new month on the Hebrew calendar. As has been done for more than 20 years, the Women of the Wall gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray. As usual, arrests were made. What made these arrests unusual and noteworthy is that for the first time it was not the women who were arrested. It was the Ultra-Orthodox protestors.

Orthodox Jewish custom says only men are allowed to wear prayer shawls, yarmulkes, tefillin, and carry and read from Torah. Since 1988, using violation of local custom, police have arrested women who on the first day of each Hebrew month came to the Western Wall, donned prayer shawls and yarmulkes, some wearing tefillin, and read from Torah and prayed.

Then last month, an Israeli district court ruled that women, praying aloud and wearing prayer shawls did not disrupt the peace and were not in violation of local custom. Based on that decision, the tables were turned.

On Friday, police set up iron fencing and formed human chains to protect the women. The women were escorted in and out. Five protestors were arrested and two police were injured when protestors threw chairs.

One of the principals agreed to when the new Israeli government was formed in March was that special protections afforded the Ultra-Orthodox must end. Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni has instructed her staff to draft a bill that would make segregation and humiliation of women in public a criminal offense and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein urged cabinet ministers to take measures to end gender segregation. And in what can be viewed as major progress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked a former cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky, to work out a compromise that would allow women to pray at the Western Wall while avoiding tension with the Ultra-Orthodox.

These developments are significant. Finally, rights of non-Orthodox Jews and women are starting to be protected.