Jerusalem’s local planning and building committee refused to discuss a building permit for expanding the mixed-gender prayer area in the Western Wall, saying it is “a highly sensitive site.”
The mixed prayer area is meant to resolve a dispute with Jewish diaspora and non-Orthodox Jews to allow men and women to pray together and not under ultra-Orthodox rules at Judaism’s second holiest site.
In a letter sent last week by Jerusalem municipality director-general Amnon Merhav to Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, Merhav said that the local committee would not discuss the permit request. The district planning body, which answers to the government, will debate the permit on Monday instead. The district planning committee’s members include representatives from the government, the Jerusalem municipality, adjacent local municipalities and representatives from environmental organizations.
The mixed prayer site was part of the Western Wall plan meant to resolve the problem of prayer freedom for non-Orthodox Jews but is vehemently opposed by the ultra-Orthodox as well as right-wing organizations such as Ateret Cohanim.
In June 2017, because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the cabinet retreated from its decision to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which the cabinet had approved in January 2016.
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The prayer site’s construction was never completed and some of what was built violates its building permit. Now the government company charged with developing the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City asked the municipality to extend the building permit, but in an exceptional move the planning and building panel won’t even debate it.
“Construction at the site was accompanied by deep and difficult disputes - planning, theological, national and international ones,” Merhav wrote. “In such a sensitive place and regarding such a sensitive issue, rife with disagreements and complexities, it would only be proper that the body dealing with requests for issuing and extending building permits should be a national planning body and not a local one,” Merhav wrote in his letter.
The commission will be acting under Clause 28 of the Planning and Building Law, which allows the district planning commission to assume the authority of the local planning committee. According to a source familiar with the issue, during the past 40 years there have only been a handful of instances where a district planning committee used this clause to take authority usually vested with a local committee.
The prayer space at the Western Wall was erected four years ago under Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park situated at the southern end of the Wall, in order to serve non-Orthodox streams and allow mixed-gender prayer services. The Western Wall falls under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, therefore ultra-Orthodox rules are maintained. This means separating men and women with a high fence and forbidding women to pray in loud voices with accessories restricted to men in Orthodox Judaism, such as skullcaps, prayer shawls and a Torah scroll.