A draft bill to be submitted to the Knesset, announced on Monday, would prohibit any practices at the Western Wall that are not deemed strictly Orthodox.
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The bill, initiated by members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, would ban women from wearing prayer shawls or tefillin at the Jewish holy site. It would forbid them from reading from the Torah or blowing shofars in the women’s section, and it would ban egalitarian prayer services anywhere near the Western Wall.
If passed, the new “Kotel Law,” as it is called, would prevent any religious practices that “offend worshippers at the place.” It would also provide the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s rabbinical court with sole jurisdiction over the Western Wall.
Those who violate its restrictions would face heavy sanctions: six months in prison or a 10,000-shekel fine.
The brand new legislative initiative comes at a time when tensions over the Western Wall are already running high. Last month, violence broke out at the site when ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to prevent a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis from leading a procession to the site while carrying Torah scrolls in their arms.
Last week, death threats were issued to leaders of the Reform movement at a synagogue that was vandalized in the town of Ra’anana.
Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders outside Israel have expressed growing frustration over the deadlock in a government-approved plan that would have allocated them a section at the Southern expanse of the wall for mixed-prayer services. But under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, including Shas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not implemented the plan.
If passed, the new law would mark a major setback for efforts to advance Jewish pluralism in Israel.
In a press release, Shas said that the new law was meant “to make order in the Jewish people’s holiest place and to formalize its halakhic status.”
“It is inconceivable that a place from which the holy spirit never moves away and for which generations of Jews have yearned, will be the site of shameful confrontations and an affront to millions of Jews who flock there regularly,” it continued. “We have no doubt the bill honestly reflects the majority opinion of the Israeli public, and it will return it [the Western Wall] its deserving status, its honor and its holiness.”
Shas maintains that the bill enjoys widespread support and that “many Knesset members have already signed it.”
According to the explanation that accompanies the bill, the new “Kotel Law” would spell out what constitutes “local custom” at the Western Wall and what practices would be deemed illegal there.
In the past, ultra-Orthodox groups had argued that women should be prohibited from wearing prayer shawls and tefillin at the Kotel and that they should not be allowed to read from the Torah there, because such practices violate local custom. However, a Jerusalem District Court verdict, handed down three years ago, found that this was not the case.
The new law is clearly meant to override that ruling. It stipulates that “local custom” will be determined by “the law of the Torah” as interpreted by Israel’s rabbinical courts and the Chief Rabbinate. The chief custodian of the Western Wall, according to the bill, will be a rabbi appointed by the minister of religious affairs in coordination with Israel’s chief rabbis.
The non-Orthodox movements in Israel responded with outrage to the initiative, which they termed a “bombshell.”
“This is nothing less than insane,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel. "Who would have imagined that this government, the most nationalistic ever, would agree to such a post-Zionist act? This law essentially says that most of the Jews in Israel and the world are not Jewish. It’s as simple as that.”
In any other country, he said, the law would be disqualified for being anti-Semitic. “But here, in the land of the Orthodox Jews, this law gets backing.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, called the bill an attempt to circumvent the decision taken by a government in which Shas is a full partner. “It is part of the continued campaign of incitement and instigation being waged by Haredi politicians against the Reform movement,” he said.
Kariv said it was “horrifying” that instead of condemning the vandalism at the Reform synagogue last week, Shas had chosen to respond in this way.