Israeli woman wearing prayer shawl held at holy site

JERUSALEM, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Police arrested an Israeli woman at Judaism's most revered religious site on Wednesday for wearing a prayer shawl, which Orthodox Jewish tradition dictates is only for men. An activist said she could face jail.

The incident at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city highlighted the sharp divisions between the more liberal streams of Judaism and powerful Orthodox Jews, most of whom eschew any active praying role for women.

Jews revere the Western Wall as a remnant of an ancient temple from Roman times, and come from around the world to visit or worship at the site that is administered according to strict Orthodox law.

Nofrat Frankel, 25, an Israeli medical student, worshipped at the site alongside 40 other women.

After a protest by Orthodox worshippers who spotted her, police escorted her to a police post and detained her for two hours before releasing her and ordering her to stay away from the holy site for 15 days, a spokeswoman said.

Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said Frankel was detained on suspicion of wearing a prayer shawl in violation of an Israeli high court ruling stating that women cannot wear religious garments at the site, in keeping with Orthodox rules. "Tensions flared, there was pushing and shouting and police intervened to prevent violence," Rosenfeld said. There were no other arrests and nobody was hurt, he added.

Frankel may face charges of performing a religious act that offends others, a statute that mandates a maximum six month jail term and a 10,000 shekel ($2,000) fine, said Anat Hoffman, director of a group that sponsors "Women of the Wall".

Frankel was also holding a Torah, a Jewish biblical scroll, in contravention of Jewish Orthodox tradition, but police did not mention it as a reason for her arrest.

Hoffman's group advocates a more open role for women in Jewish prayer at the Western Wall and in the past two decades has sparred frequently there with Orthodox worshippers but she said this was the first time police had arrested any of them.

"This is ridiculous. If I cannot wear a religious garment at the Western Wall, then where can I?," Hoffman said to Reuters.

Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi in charge at the Western Wall, denounced Hoffman's group in an interview with Israel's Army Radio, calling their presence at the holy site "a desecration". (Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Ori Lewis) (For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to