Netanyahu Pushes to Expand Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space

Minister Miri Regev heads the committee responsible for approving construction at the site. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers deny claim that they aren't opposed

File photo: Women praying at the Western Wall in 2017.
Michal Fattal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing to expand the mixed gender prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev heads the committee responsible on such construction at the southern end of the Kotel, near what is called Robinson’s Arch, and Netanyahu is pressing her to approve the expansion.

In April, a petition was filed with the High Court of Justice against work at the site, which was carried out in a very limited fashion last year. The petitioners claim the work has caused damage to the historic site. The approval by Regev’s committee is necessary for the state to notify the High Court that the expansion of the prayer site has received all the required approvals and permits.

The Prime Minister’s Office has informed Regev that Interior Minister Arye Dery of Shas and Knesset member Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) support the agreement to allow non-Orthodox Jewish denominations to pray, men and women together, at Robinson’s Arch and there is no reason not to convene the committee and approve the construction.

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But Dery told Haaretz: “The entire Western Wall is holy and there is no place at any part of it for mixed prayer.” Gafni said he has not agreed in any way to the expansion. Regev has not yet decided when to convene the committee and is still consulting with others on the question.

According to the Antiquities Law, any construction at an archeological site requires the approval of a special ministerial committee, which includes the minister responsible for the Israel Antiquities Authority, in this case Regev, alongside Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay. 

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. 

The plan was formulated in coordination with the American Conservative and Reform movements. The original framework included the expansion of the prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel and the establishment of a new public council to be in charge of the new mixed prayer space. 

This council was to include representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements and the Women of the Wall. This was a precedent- setting decision recognizing Reform and Conservative prayer services officially for the first time, and led the Haredi parties to fight to revoke the deal.

After this agreement was cancelled and attempts to reconcile with the Reform movement in the United States failed, Netanyahu announced the prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel would be expanded, using government funds. This work was started last year and deputy cabinet secretary Ronen Peretz was given responsibility for the matter.
  
In April the right-wing nonprofit organization Betzedek petitioned the High Court against the Antiquities Authority saying the work being carried out was illegal. The petition was supported by a document from the official government Archeological Council on the damage caused to the historic site by the work to expand the prayer space. 

In response, Peretz began preparing, at Netanyahu’s instruction, a plan in coordination with the Antiquities Authority to legalize the work at Robinson’s Arch and turn it into a “religious prayer site for the pluralistic denominations.”

Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu has been pressuring Regev to convene the committee and as a result, Regev, Peretz, the director of the Antiquities Authority Yisrael Hasson and representatives of the attorney general have met in the past two weeks to discuss the issue. The archeological implications of the work at the site were presented to committee members at the meetings. At the same time, the chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, have written to the committee asking to meet with them and lay out their claim that the entire Western Wall is an Orthodox religious site and mixed-gender prayer must not be allowed there.

Orthodox Jewish organizations have been running a campaign against Netanyahu, as well as Regev, Shaked and Azoulay calling for them not to approve the work, which means in practice to pull back from the agreement compensating the Reform movement in the United States for the government’s retreat from the original plan for the Kotel prayer space.