Police arrested five women on Thursday morning for wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) traditionally worn by men, while participating in a Rosh Hodesh prayer service at the Western Wall attended by some 200 women.

Police additionally arrested a haredi man who allegedly lit one of the women's prayer books on fire.

Among those arrested was Director of the Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs. Meretz MK Tamar Sandberg accompanied Sachs after her arrest. 

The arrests came following an announcement this week of plans for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall being developed and brokered by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

"It's a joke that a day after Sharansky's plan was published around the world women are being arrested at the Kotel," Zandberg said.

Chiming in on the matter, Meretz MK Michal Rozin said that the fact that a haredi rabbi decides what the customs of the site are must be changed in order to stop arrests.

"This is a political and ideological fight. I am working to changing the regulations so women can pray as they wish at Kotel," Rozin stated.

Western Wall and Holy Sites Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz expressed regret over what he called the women's "provocation."

The rabbi said the women's actions breached the court's decision and disturbed others praying at the Kotel. He added that the fact that they were continuing to act in this way despite the compromise proposed by Sharansky was "clear evidence that their purpose it so stir controversy and hurt other people's feelings while increasing polarization among the people and turning the Kotel into a battlefield of fanaticism."

Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday night that a section for egalitarian prayer must be established at the holy site.

The chairman’s plan, devised in cooperation with MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, among others, involves the expansion of the current Western Wall Plaza to comprise an area from the northern end of the Western Wall site down to the southern end of the wall by Robinson’s Arch.

The plan calls for the current prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, which was designated for non-Orthodox prayer in 2003 by the Supreme Court, to be elevated to the same level as the current plaza area, and for the area running along the Western Wall to be divided into three equal parts – male, female, and egalitarian – with one entrance to the entire complex set to be created.

However, Ben-Dahan told the Post on Wednesday that the Mughrabi Bridge, an earthen ramp and wooden bridge leading up to the Temple Mount that constitutes a solid barrier between the current plaza and the Robinson’s Arch area, will remain in place.

This may not satisfy the demands of the Women of the Wall group, which has stated that it would find any solution in which the group be forced to pray separately from the main plaza unacceptable.

Women of the Wall said in a statement to the press on Wednesday that although it had not been presented with the full plan, it was “hopeful at the possibility of a major advancement in pluralism at the Western Wall.”

The group emphasized, however, that arrests and detainments of women at the site during the organization’s monthly prayer services should be halted immediately, given that a permanent solution would take time to be completed.

“There is no solution that will unify the Jewish people so long as women can be arrested for wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah at the Western Wall, a public holy site in Israel,” it said.

A 2003 Supreme Court ruling prohibits religious ceremonies “not according to local custom” or those that “may hurt the feelings of the worshipers” at holy sites, including the Western Wall.

The police interpret this as meaning anything that deviates from Orthodox norms.

Jerusalem District Police Cmdr. Yosi Perienti said on Tuesday, however, that at the next Women of the Wall prayer service, which was set to take place on Thursday morning, the police intend to enforce the restrictions.

In a letter to senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who filed a complaint to the police for failing to arrest women who wore “male-style” tallitot – large, black-and-white prayer shawls distinguished from “female-style” tallitot that are smaller, often more colorful and worn around the neck – at the site last month, Perienti assured the haredi lawmaker that the restrictions will be enforced.

“The police will not allow the law to be violated by the Women of the Wall,” the commander wrote.

He sent a copy of the letter to the organization as well, stating, “In accordance with the directives of the Justice Ministry, you are not permitted to pray in accordance with your customs at the Western Wall Plaza except at the site designated for this purpose,” referring to the Robinson’s Arch area.

“As long as the current arrangements are not changed, you are obligated to act in accordance with the ruling of the court,” he wrote.

In response to the plan being drawn up by Sharansky, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has vigorously opposed the practices of the religious rights group, said on Wednesday that although he very much wished that the customs practiced at the site “would not deviate from Jewish law,” he would not oppose the proposed solution “for the sake of unity and out of a desire to distance the Western Wall from all argument and dispute.”

Rabinowitz has close ties to the haredi rabbinical leadership and it is understood that he consulted with senior rabbis before agreeing to Sharansky’s proposals.

The almost total absence of public opposition from the haredi political and spiritual leadership indicates, therefore, that the proposal as it stands is acceptable to the upper echelons of the ultra- Orthodox community.

Jpost.com staff contributed to this report

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