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Conservative Jews are pelted with bottles at the Western Wall

JERUSALEM, May 23 (JTA) — Police held back fervently Orthodox Jews who tried to disrupt 200 members of the Israeli Conservative movement who held mixed-gender Shavuot services at the Western Wall Plaza last Friday. In the wake of the demonstrations, Israel’s two chief rabbis met with Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak Sunday to discuss religious tensions. Israel Radio reported that the two spiritual leaders proposed that Barak put a hold on some of the major legislative initiatives pending in the Knesset, including a bill that would codify into law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. The demonstrators hurled plastic drink bottles at the Conservative worshipers, lightly injuring one woman. Police, who were deployed in two large circles around the group, prevented direct confrontations between the sides, enabling the services to conclude and the Conservative worshipers to disperse without incident. Four Orthodox protesters were detained by police. Conservative leaders praised the police’s actions, comparing Friday’s events to a service held two years ago when the worshipers were escorted out of the plaza under a hail of garbage from the windows of a nearby Orthodox yeshiva. “Two years ago, the police led us away and left the rock-throwers. This year they protected us and led away the people who were breaking laws,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, of Masorti, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel. Sacks noted that the Conservative service had been under way undisturbed for about an hour and a half before the unrest began. He said the bottles began flying shortly after the drinks were passed out for worshipers. He said the worshipers’ recitation of the prayer for the state of Israel and the singing of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, drew the greatest negative reaction from the fervently Orthodox. Shimon Malcha, a spokesman for Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry, blamed the Conservative service for the unrest. “It was deliberately planned to coincide with days when there is crowding at the plaza. We regret that the Israel police allowed the provocation,” he said. Mixed-gender services during several Jewish holidays at the Western Wall Plaza have in recent years turned into a focal point of tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.