Orthodox Intrusion Into Egalitarian Western Wall Prayer Space Sparks Outrage

Executive director of Israel's Conservative movement calls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step in.

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall, February 25, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

For the first time since it was designated as a space for Conservative and Reform worshippers, the southern expanse of the Western Wall hosted an Orthodox prayer service on Tuesday, with a temporary barrier set up to separate men and women.

The service was presided over by Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem and former chief Sephardi rabbi. The delegation of worshippers was accompanied to the site by police.

Leaders of non-Orthodox movements in Israel were shocked to learn that their temporarily designated egalitarian prayer space had been taken over by Orthodox worshippers.  

“This is an intentional sabotage of relations between Israel and world Jewry,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, who referred to the incident as an “act of robbery.” Hess called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step in and call to order those, like the Jerusalem chief rabbi, who had chosen to make a show of power at the site.

For the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, Tuesday morning’s incident comes on the heel of several major setbacks for religious freedom in Israel, including a new law meant to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Reform and Conservative converts to use state-sanctioned mikvehs (ritual baths).

A week and a half ago, a high-ranking delegation of American Jewish leaders met with the prime minister to convey their deep concerns about the ongoing delays in executing the agreement that would have finalized the status of the egalitarian prayer space and the regulations governing it. 

The Conservative movement has been holding prayers services and organized events at the southern expanse of the Western Wall for many years. Under the agreement approved — though not yet implemented — by the government, the existing prayer space would be greatly expanded and improved with one entrance created for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections.  

Among the worshippers seen at the southern expanse of the Western Wall this morning was Matti Dan, a leader of Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva located in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Eyewitnesses said the Orthodox worshippers praying at the site, both men and women, appeared to be affiliated with the right-wing yeshiva. Matti Dan did not respond to a request for comment from Haaretz.

Several weeks ago, a delegation from Ateret Cohanim visited the egalitarian prayer area, accompanied Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. Ariel was one of five government ministers who voted against the plan to construct a special prayer space at the Jewish holy site for the Reform and Conservative movements.  

Amar did not respond to a request for comment.