Religious Services Minister Refuses to Back Egalitarian Prayer Space Deal at Kotel

David Azoulay’s stance is seen as rebuke to his party leader Arye Dery, but not a major obstacle for government to overcome.

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay is refusing to sign the new regulations that will establish an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, causing embarrassment to the government and his Shas faction chairman, Arye Dery.

Speaking at a closed meeting with rabbis in Acre on Thursday, Azoulay said the agreement “will be killed” and he would not be signing it “under any circumstances,” even though a binding cabinet decision on the matter was passed in January.

Referring to Reform and Conservative movement Jews, Azoulay added, “They must not be given a foothold among the people of Israel.”

Azoulay was meant to sign the regulations last week. Once signed, the agreement will enable the creation of a space for liberal Jews to pray at the Western Wall’s southern section, with segregated prayer remaining at the main Western Wall plaza. However, his remarks – which were published in media outlets, including Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat – confirmed his unwillingness to cooperate. “Our next generation will neither forgive nor forget if we do not tell the truth and that we can say, ‘My hands did not spill this blood,’” a reference to biblical laws governing murder.

Tomer Appelbaum

If Azoulay persists in his refusal to sign the regulations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can authorize another minister to do so.

The main outcome of Azoulay’s statements is to embarrass Interior Minister Dery, who is working – via private conversations with members of the ultra-Orthodox community – to minimize the liberal Jewish movements’ success with regard to the egalitarian prayer space. Azoulay says the agreement means government recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements – “recognition, whether we want it or not.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu is set to meet Israel’s two chief rabbis and senior Knesset members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. They are expected to ask him to freeze the arrangement or remove the clauses that grant status to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Opinions on the matter vary in the ultra-Orthodox community. The hard-liners are led by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who is usually considered statesmanlike and moderate. However, Lau was the driving force behind ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism coming out against the arrangement. He also complained that it had been instigated without consulting either him or Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

However, some ultra-Orthodox ministers and MKs are more pragmatic. As well as Dery, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni (both United Torah Judaism) are in favor of the new arrangement. They have been kept in the loop about recent developments by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Sources in the Reform movement said they would not relinquish their gains. Officials involved in the plan on behalf of the prime minister said the chances are slim that the ultra-Orthodox will be able to reverse the decision, while no coalition crisis is expected to emerge from the controversy.

Even so, after the deadline passed this week for the signing of the regulations, the state informed the High Court of Justice that it needed a three-month extension to submit a progress report to the court.

The ultra-Orthodox parties say they hope that the request signals a de facto delay in the arrangement.

The state made its request for an extension in response to a petition by groups that had split off from the Women of the Wall due to opposition to the new arrangement. The splinter groups want to continue praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall (north of the southern wall area) and read the Torah there while wearing prayer shawls; this is opposed by the Western Wall rabbi and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The cabinet had authorized the egalitarian prayer space plan at the end of January, concerned that a delay would cause the High Court to accept the petition and allow the women to pray with Torah scrolls at the traditional women’s section.

Azoulay told the rabbis in Acre that he was not concerned the High Court might impose a boarder arrangement, calling on the rabbis to organize protest rallies if the court ruled in favor of the women.