Jewish Groups Outraged After Israeli Cabinet Backtracks on Mixed Space at Western Wall

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, a key architect of the plan, calls the move 'a retreat that will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult'

Women pray with Torah scroll at the Western Wall for the first time, November, 2016.
Michal Fattal

Jewish organizations responded with outrage to Sunday's Israeli cabinet decision to cede to ultra-Orthodox pressure and suspend a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, where Reform and Conservative Jews could hold mixed prayer services.

Only two members of the cabinet, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, voted against the move, which was forced on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who do not consider the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious practice legitimate. The plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, approved by the cabinet in January 2016, had been hailed as historic in most of the Jewish world.

In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office said efforts would be made to reach a new compromise at the Western Wall. Spearheading these efforts would be Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, of Netanyahu's Likud party, and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman.

At the same time, the statement said, infrastructure work would begin on the southern expanse of the Western Wall in preparation for a new plan that would enable egalitarian prayer services in that area and be acceptable to both the non-Orthodox movements and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the key architect of the Western Wall plan, expressed deep disappointment with the government decision. “Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people,’” Sharansky said in a statement.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities. Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” he said. Sharansky was not given advance notice by Netanyahu of his intent to push through the decision on Sunday.

The Jewish Agency executive committee is due to hold a special meeting early Monday to decide what, if any, measures should be taken in response to the cabinet decision. That will be followed by an emergency session of the Jewish Agency board of governors, which will be asked to approve any proposals drafted. Sources at the Jewish Agency said it was unlikely that any “retaliatory” measures would be adopted against the Israeli government, adding that the board would probably suffice with a strongly worded statement expressing its disappointment. Some board members had broached the idea of boycotting a dinner scheduled for Monday evening with Prime Minister Netanyahu but their proposal was immediately rejected.

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the government decision a “capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox parties,” noting that “nothing like this has ever happened before.” He thanked the two ministers who voted against the decision, but said he was “absolutely astonished by the other ministers, and the prime minister above all.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of Reform Jewry in North America, called the government’s decision an “unconscionable insult” and threatened to take action. "Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to say 'no' to his previous 'yes' is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” said Jacobs in a statement. "We are assessing all next steps. The Israeli Supreme Court will rule, but even in waiting for the court, we will not be still or silent. The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must—and will—be ended." 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform Jewish movement in Israel, called the decision a “disgrace” and warned that it would deal a harsh blow to the “basic interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” He said that the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues had given their support to an “anti-Zionist move” that would hurt Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and weaken the connection of millions of Jews to Jerusalem.

The cabinet decision came the same day that the state had been due to submit its response to a petition filed by the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, demanding that the agreement be implemented. In the alternative, the petitioners seek to have the existing gender-segregated areas of the Western Wall re-divided to make room for them.

Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners had pressured him to scrap the plan entirely but the prime minister preferred to call for a “freeze,” aware that a vote to cancel the plan in its entirety would spark an even harsher backlash in the Jewish world.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which had been pressuring Netanyahu behind the scenes to retreat from the plan, welcomed the cabinet decision. “The government decision to divide the Western Wall, which is the heart of the Jewish people -- was a mistake to begin with, and it is good that it was stopped,” said Rabbi David Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi. “The Western Wall is not dividable.”

As of Sunday afternoon, the state had yet to meet its deadline for a response to the court petition. Kariv told Haaretz that the petitioners had no intention of withdrawing their petition following the government's announcement. “Our first priority has always been to have part of the traditional Kotel area allotted to us, and that is what we will fight for now in court,” he said.

Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, described the decision to suspend implementation of the existing plan “shameful” and said it was particularly disturbing that women who sit in the cabinet raised their hands in favor of it.

“The fact that the prime minister, who himself initiated and led the agreement, is bending and retreating from that historic decision is shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed [as voting] against women,” she said. “It’s a terrible day for women in Israel when the prime minister sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists who want to enforce their religious customs while intentionally violating the rights of the majority of the Jewish world, 51 percent being women.”

Netanyahu’s decision almost five years ago to seek a compromise over prayer at the Western Wall was prompted by violent clashes that broke out each month when Women of the Wall activists held their monthly prayer service at the holy site, many of them wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries (tefillin) – in defiance of ultra-Orthodox practice that reserves their use by men.

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a liberal Orthodox group, also expressed outrage at the decision. “It’s a shame that the government decided once again to break ties with Diaspora Jewry and spit in its face,” the organization said in a statement. “A new plan that allows Jews around the world to feel connected to the Kotel must be formulated as soon as possible.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the government’s decision did not come as a total surprise to her since no steps were ever taken to implement the agreement. “At the same time,” she said, “I’m stunned that the government of Israel would so betray the interests of its own people.”

Nachman Shai, co-chair of the Knesset caucus for U.S.-Israel relations and a member of the opposition Zionist Union, said that American Jews have good reason to feel betrayed today. “The backward flip that the government did this morning shows that it's great in acrobatics but poor in trustworthiness,” he said.

The leader of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, called the decision "another capitulation by Netanyahu over his promises, turning his back on the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and harming the delicate fabric that unites the entire mosaic of the Jewish people." The Western Wall, Herzog said, "is holy to the entire Jewish people and everyone has an equal right to it." He vowed to replace the Netanyahu government with a centrist electoral bloc that would "respect everyone in their faith at the Wall."

The American Jewish Committee expressed deep disappointment with the government’s decision. “The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization for Jewish federations in the United States and Canada, also denounced the government decision. "We are disappointed and frustrated by the government's decision,” said JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman. "The hope and expectation of Jews throughout North America is that the government will see fit to honor their commitment to ensuring one Wall for one people."

The Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, denounced the government decision, saying it was “another case of backtracking from its responsibility for maintaining freedom of religion at the Western Wall.” 

“The decision prevents the implementation of a fitting solution that was already passed by the [cabinet] and that could have resolved a practical and symbolic dispute with the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism," said IDI Vice President Yedidia Stern in a statement. In effect, it places the decision-making on the issue in the hands of the Supreme Court, he said. The IDI called the cabinet decision "yet another example of this government mocking Diaspora Jewry and freedom of religion, and not taking responsibility for issues that are within its authority.” 

The Reut Institute, an independent policy institute based in Tel Aviv, warned that that government’s decision will “deepen the alienation felt among many Jews in the world today in relation to the State of Israel.”

“When Israel denies the largest Jewish denominations in North America the right to pray at the Kotel according to their custom, it weakens not only their connection to the State of Israel, but also challenges their ability to maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora,” the institute said in a statement. “Israeli actions that delegitimize non-Orthodox Judaism limit the ability of educators and communal leaders to nurture a positive Jewish identity and relationship with Israel.”