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Police restrain Orthodox Jews as U.S. delegation prays at wall

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — The gap separating the various streams of Judaism has again become all too apparent. In a scene reminiscent of similar incidents at the Western Wall during the past few years, Israeli police restrained fervently Orthodox demonstrators Monday as a delegation of American Reform rabbis held a mixed prayer service there. Dozens of the demonstrators scuffled with police and heckled the worshipers as the service took place in a cordoned-off area of the Western Wall Plaza. One member of the delegation — Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America — said religious intolerance had made it necessary for his group to pray under police protection. “This is a disgrace, that a group of Reform rabbis is penned up in this cage,” he said. “This area does not belong to them,” he added, referring to the protesters. A day before the prayer service was held, a coalition of American Orthodox Jews known as Am Echad, or One Nation, issued a statement decrying what it described as the “confrontation” created by the Reform delegation. And in an ad appearing in Sunday’s New York Times, Am Echad charged that U.S. Reform and Conservative leaders “want you to believe that Israel’s Orthodox parties don’t want to recognize American Jews as Jews.” “Far from undermining Jewish unity, Israel’s Orthodox parties are trying to maintain it,” the ad continued. “Let’s cool the rhetoric and present our points of view with honesty and respect.” The Reform delegation’s visit came a week after the Knesset passed legislation aimed at blocking the appointment of Reform and Conservative representatives to local religious councils. During their visit, the delegation plans to meet with Israeli political leaders, including the centrist party’s candidate for prime minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, who was criticized by liberal politicians after voting in favor of the religious councils legislation last week. In a related development, fervently Orthodox leaders are raising money to cover penalties that the High Court of Justice is imposing on the heads of some local religious councils. The court is imposing the fines on those council leaders who ignore a recent court ruling ordering them to allow Conservative and Reform representatives to attend council meetings. Last week, the court fined the head of the Jerusalem council some $7,300 for failing to abide by the ruling.