Amid Western Wall Crisis, Opposition Lawmaker Pushes New Bill for Egalitarian Prayer Space

With the bill, Zionist Union's Nachman Shai aims to ward off 'strategic crisis' with world Jewry

Israeli protesters demonstrating outside Prime Minister Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2017 against his government's decision to abandon a deal allowing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

A bill that would force the government to carry out its plans to build a new and permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall will be introduced to the Knesset on Wednesday.

The bill, initiated by MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), would give a government decision, suspended last week, the force of law – making it virtually impossible to retract.

The bill was drafted last year but never submitted to the Knesset. Shai said that by introducing it at this time, he hoped to ward off a “strategic crisis” with world Jewry.

“The government decision to retract the Kotel agreement is a significant threat to the unity of the Jewish people and to the historic ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” said the Knesset member, who serves as co-chair of the parliamentary caucus responsible for strengthening Israel’s ties with Jewish communities abroad.

“The state, that was founded in order to assure religious and political freedom for the Jewish nation, is destroying with its own hands the most fundamental pillars of the nation-state of the Jewish people and is leaving millions of Jews disappointed and in pain,” he added.

Shai described the government action, announced at its Sunday cabinet meeting last week, as a “spit in the face” to world Jewry.

Because the bill is not being presented by the government, but rather by an individual Knesset member, it will require a preliminary reading before it can be moved on to committee. Should the ruling coalition mobilize against it, the legislative proposal could be killed at this early stage.

Two government ministers – Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz – voted against the decision to suspend the Western Wall agreement last week. Knesset members from the ruling coalition have also attacked it. Shai’s legislative initiative, therefore, might not necessarily be thwarted.

The government’s reversal of its commitment to build a new prayer plaza at the Western Wall has sparked an unprecedented crisis with Diaspora Jewry. After the decision was announced, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which was convening in Jerusalem, cancelled a dinner that had been scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest. A delegation of leaders from the Reform movement also cancelled a meeting that had been planned with the prime minister.

The government had approved the plan for an egalitarian space in January 2016, following three years of negotiations. The plan was never implemented, however, because of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties that sit in the government.

Responding to the backlash, Netanyahu told world Jewish leaders that he plans to enlarge the temporary platform at the Western Wall that was put up several years ago to serve non-Orthodox worshippers. Their response was that they do not consider that an acceptable solution because the area would still be hidden from visitors and under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

The High Court of Justice will hear a suit against the government on the matter on July 30. The government was given until July 12 to present its response to the petitioners who have demanded that the Reform and Conservative movements be allocated their own permanent prayer plaza at the Jewish holy site.

In their petition, the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall – the multi-denominational feminist prayer group – demanded that the government either fulfill its commitment to create a permanent prayer space for them near the area known as Robinson’s Arch, on the southern side of the Western Wall, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated prayer plaza to make room for them.