Israeli Lawmakers Fire Opening Shots in Campaign to Revive Kotel Deal

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MK Gilad Kariv attending a prayer gathering at the Western Wall in April.
MK Gilad Kariv attending a prayer gathering at the Western Wall in April. Credit: The Reform Movement

Members of Israel’s new governing coalition opened their campaign Monday to revive the deal that was meant to grant equal prayer rights at the Western Wall to the Reform and Conservative movements.

At the initiative of Labor MK Gilad Kariv, who also serves as chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a group of five coalition lawmakers convened to discuss strategy for putting the agreement back on the table.

Kariv, the first Reform rabbi to sit in the Knesset, had been involved in negotiations over the original deal nearly 10 years ago, when he served as executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.

The so-called Kotel deal, which was approved by a government headed by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, called for the establishment of a new plaza for egalitarian prayer services at the southern side of the Western Wall that would be equal in visibility and accessibility to the existing gender-segregated plaza on the northern side.

The agreement, drafted by then-Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, was to have provided the non-Orthodox movements with official recognition at the Jewish holy site for the first time.

Its more immediate purpose, however, was to resolve the ongoing monthly clashes at the site between ultra-Orthodox Jews and Women of the Wall, a multidenominational feminist prayer group. Members of the group were often attacked by Haredi worshippers for singing out loud and wearing prayer shawls and tefillin.

Had the Kotel deal been implemented, Women of the Wall would have moved their monthly prayer service to the new egalitarian space. However, the arrangement was canceled in June 2017, under pressure from the Haredi parties in the government at the time. The ultra-Orthodox consider the Reform and Conservative movements illegitimate.

“In the coming weeks, we will demand an internal government move around the revival of the Kotel deal,” Gilad told the coalition members gathered in the Labor Party meeting room in the Knesset. He said the first step would be opening discussions on the matter with Yamina and New Hope, the two right-wing parties in the coalition.

An ultra-Orthodox man praying at the site of the Western Wall last month.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

The centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid had already reached agreement with four factions in the coalition – Labor, Meretz, Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu – to revive the Kotel deal as part of the negotiations it held with them before Yamina and New Hope decided to join the government. But under the broader coalition agreement that was later signed, all previous agreements are subject to the approval of the two right-wing factions. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Yamina, served in the government that approved the original Kotel deal and enthusiastically supported it. There is little reason to believe that Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party or Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List will stand in the way, either.

Attending the Knesset meeting convened by Kariv were MKs Alon Tal (Kahol Lavan), Michal Rozin and Gaby Lasky (Meretz), and Ibtisam Mara’ana (Labor).

A week ago Friday, dozens of prayers books belonging to Women of the Wall worshippers were torn up by ultra-Orthodox mobs during the monthly prayer service. “It’s hard to believe, but the incitement and violence have reached a new level,” Kariv said, adding that he intended to request that Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana intervene to prevent a repeat of such scenes.

At Monday’s meeting, Anat Hoffman – the long-standing chairwoman of Women of the Wall – presented Kariv with her prayer shawl, stained with coffee that an ultra-Orthodox worshipper had thrown at her. “It seems fitting that someone like you, who really cares, would be given this memento,” she said. “Let it hang above you, this flag of Women of the Wall, so that you remember us.”

Women of the Wall founder Anat Hoffman, right, blowing a shofar at the Western Wall in 2019. Credit: Hadas Parush

Responding to the gesture, Mara’ana said: “As an Arab woman and a member of Knesset, I stand beside you and I stand up for your rights. If only all the religions in the world would shake off oppression and exclusion and tell us that we, too, have a place.”

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