Could Israel's Religious Services Minister Block the New Western Wall Prayer Space?

Minister David Azoulay has expressed disdain for Reform Jews and opposed the creation of the new egalitarian section. Now its future may be in his hands.

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The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016.
The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016. Credit: AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The plan to create a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall could be stopped dead in its tracks within the next two weeks if one man remains true to his convictions.

For the plan to move ahead, two key cabinet members must sign a set of regulations providing detailed instructions for its implementation. Those cabinet members are Religious Services Minister David Azoulay and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. According to the government decision, announced two weeks ago, these regulations must be signed no later than 30 days after the plan is approved.

Azoulay, a member of the Orthodox Mizrahi Shas party, was one of five ministers – all of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox – who voted against the plan when it was presented to the government.

Although she is a member of the Orthodox pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi party, Shaked is not an observant Jew. Like her party leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Shaked voted in favor of the plan.

Not only did Azoulay oppose the plan in the cabinet, but last summer he referred to Reform Jews – key beneficiaries of the plan – in very disparaging terms. In an interview with the Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom, Azoulay called the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.” At the time, leaders of Reform Jewry in Israel demanded his ouster.

Asked whether Azoulay intends to sign the regulations putting the plan into effect, his spokesman told Haaretz he had not yet decided. “The issue is being examined by the legal department of the ministry,” said Daniel Bar, his press adviser.

In recent days, Haaretz has learned, Azoulay met several times with newly installed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit for consultations on the matter. Until two weeks ago, Mendelblit served as cabinet secretary and in that capacity oversaw the negotiations that ultimately led to the agreement on the new prayer space.

Hailed as historic, the agreement calls for setting up a 900-square-meter platform in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational feminist prayer group, agreed to move its monthly service to this new section as part of the deal.

Azoulay has in the past referred to Women of the Wall as a group of “provocateurs” because some members of the group don prayer shawls and phylacteries at the Western Wall.

The agreement stipulates that the existing gender-segregated prayer areas and the new mixed prayer section will be accessed by a common entrance. The new prayer section will also enjoy equal visibility.

The plan has drawn opposition from various fronts. Ultra-Orthodox Jews object to the formal recognition it provides Conservative and Reform Judaism. The Palestinian Authority has warned that any construction at the site, considered holy by Muslims as well, would be seen as a violation of the status quo. Archeologists have cautioned that the plan could jeopardize important excavations nearby, and Orthodox feminists complain that it leaves them with no place to pray as they see fit.

According to the new plan, women praying in the existing gender-segregated area will be required to abide by ultra-Orthodox practices – far more stringent than those in force today.

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