Giving in to ultra-Orthodox, Cabinet Drops Compromise on Mixed Prayer Space at Western Wall

Construction work on mixed prayer space to continue, but deal would be renegotiated with ultra-Orthodox; Reform leader: 'Anti-Zionist move that undermines Israel's ties with the Diaspora'

Women of the Wall. July 7, 2016
Women of the Wall. July 7, 2016 Daniel Shitrit

The government decided on Sunday to suspend a plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties.

The government decision goes against commitments made to representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the U.S. 

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As per the decision, construction work on a mixed gender prayer space in the southern part of the Western Wall complex will continue, but Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman will begin talks over a new plan that would be acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties. 

The nixed plan, approved in 2016, has never been executed because of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox members of the ruling coalition. In September, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, along with Women of the Wall – a multidenominational prayer group – petitioned the Supreme Court  to force the government to fulfill its commitment, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated prayer plazas to make room for them.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under intense pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to cancel the plan altogether. The ultra-Orthodox object to mixed prayer services and do not consider the Reform and Conservative movements legitimate forms of Judaism. 

In exchange, they have let the prime minister know that they would be willing to allow non-Orthodox Jews to continue to hold mixed prayer services near the area known as Robinson’s Arch, at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, as they have been doing since 2000. The Reform and Conservative movements have long maintained that they do not consider Robinson’s Arch an acceptable solution since it lacks the visibility and the accessibility of the main prayer plazas. 

Interior Minister Arye Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said during Sunday's cabinet meeting that the original Western Wall plan was approved because the Haredi parties did not pay attention to its details. He suggested that while the ultra-religious parties could accommodate unofficial solutions, the Reform movement's decision to petition the High Court and request an official stance shut the door to a compromise. "Don’t blame the ultra-Orthodox," he said. "We never initiated a decision on the matter. We only responded to challenges to the justice system."

Netanyahu claimed at the meeting that it had been possible to come to quiet understandings on the subject of the Western Wall that would have avoided a crisis over the plans for prayer there.

"The activism of American Jewry doesn't always help," Netanyahu said. "I intend to present a partial solution. We need to avoid controversy over things that do harm to the fabric [of relations] between American Jewry and Israel whenever that is possible. The future of the Jewish people will be determined in Israel, and we must not neglect our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States."

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, of the Habayit Hayehudi party, much of the support for which comes from Orthodox voters, said that implementing the current plan would harm the status of the Chief Rabbinate. For his part, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who voted against suspending the plan, said at the meeting that it doesn't undermine the authority of the Chief Rabbinate or of Orthodoxy in Israel.

But the director of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, said the government had surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox parties and had left Jewish communities around the world stunned. He thanked Steinitz and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for voting against the suspension of the plan, but expressed astonishment over the stance of the other ministers, particularly the prime minister.  

Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, called Sunday's decision a "sad and embarrassing move that capitulates to the pressure of the Haredi parties."

"It constitutes a grave violation of the basic interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people," he said. "The prime minister and his partners lent a hand to an anti-Zionist move that undermines Israel's ties with the diaspora, and weakens the connection of millions of Jews to Jerusalem."

In February, cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was appointed by Netanyahu to develop a compromise plan on prayer at the Western Wall. In recent weeks, Hanegbi, the regional cooperation minister, held talks with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and it became clear that they would not agree to any compromise that doesn't include scrapping plans for an administrative body for the egalitarian prayer plaza that would include representatives of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Since then the plans for the egalitarian prayer area have been on hold and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the United States have seen this as an indication of a retreat on the Israeli government's part from the understandings that had been reached with the two movements. They have been conducting a public campaign against the government in the American Jewish community.

In March, Netanyahu and Hanegbi met with representatives of the Reform movement from Israel and the United States. At the meeting, the prime minister stated that he was committed to the plan approved by the cabinet and was trying to reach a compromise that would pave the way for its implementation. Speaking to Haaretz last week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Reform movement in the United States, warned of a crisis in relations between Israel and American Jewry if the Israeli government retreated from the plan for prayer facilities at the Wall.

Most American Jews define themselves as Reform or Conservative. According to the results of the most recent poll on the subject by the Pew Research Center in the United States, which were released a few days ago, 18 percent of American Jews identify themselves as Conservative and about 35 percent identify as Reform Jews. The number of Jews in the United States who identify with either of these two streams of Judaism is thought to be close to 3 million, based on a number of estimates. In contrast, only about 10 percent of American Jews, or about 600,000 people, identify as Orthodox.