Second Israeli Minister Quits Panel on Egalitarian Western Wall Prayer Space

Likud minister agrees to replace Justice Minister Shaked, who quit ■ Israel's culture minister: 'I've met Reform Jews in Argentina. They were very nice, but here in Israel they should behave'

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Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, 2015
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenumCredit: Emil Salman
Chaim Levinson
Noa Landau

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to let her resign from the ministerial panel responsible for approving the mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall. Shaked's request comes after Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev resigned as head of the panel.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) will take over for Shaked, after none of Netanyahu's party initially acquiesced, likely out of fear of aggravating their voter base, which opposes the initiative.

Regev resigned from the committee on Thursday, saying her conscience does not allow her to convene the committee and approve the work to prepare the historic archeological site for mixed-gender prayer, and that she doesn't want to see women wearing prayer shawls in the Western Wall.

On Sunday, Regev addressed Reform Jews by saying: "I've met reforms in Argentina. They were very nice, but they should be reform in Argentina. Here in Israel they should behave" like they're in Israel.

Following Regev's statement, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism Gilad Kariv said: "The rabbinical institution and national Haredi factors who invaded Likud are laying siege to the Israeli government and turning its ministers into collaborators in an organized campgain of unjustified hatred."

The ministers' conduct, Kariv said, resembled that of the wise men of Jerusalem from the Jewish parable Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, whose silence and lack of leadersip led to the zealots' victory and the fall of the second temple.

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), tweeted in response that "what happened this morning at the government meetings on the Western Wall is unbelievable. Each and every minister there looked to the side and said nothing, had no courage to take a decision. They're not even trying to hide that they're shivering in fear of a few political operatives and a minority of rabbis. And at stake: the entire Jewish people. An entire government in complete chaos! A cowardly and humiliating order of priorities. They should go home for this."

A newspaper ad signed by Likud members thanking minister Regev for "fighting for the Kotel"

Shaked has been under pressure from rabbis to oppose the expansion of the egalitarian prayer space. Besides her and Regev, the committee includes Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas). If Netanyahu replaced Regev and Azoulay opposed the plan, Shaked would become the swing vote. Netanyahu can now replace Shaked with a minister who would vote in favor of the expansion, such as Yuval Steinitz or Tzachi Hanegbi.

Netanyahu's office wishes to complete the bureaucracy of approving the expansion, since the state pledged before the High Court of Justice to do so. They fear that if they dally with approving the expansion, the High Court will rule in favor of joint prayer in the main space – a move which could lead to a deep crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

It was also reported Sunday that a group of archaeologists plans to petition the High Court against the government’s attempts to replace Regev as head of the committee.

The head of the group, Prof. Dan Bahat, a former Jerusalem district archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority and excavator of the Western Wall Tunnel, opposes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan for the antiquities-rich Robinson’s Arch area to become an egalitarian prayer space, citing irreparable damage to the site.

In June 2017, the government decided to suspend a plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties. This went against commitments made to representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the U.S.

After this agreement was canceled and attempts to reconcile with the Reform movement in the United States failed, Netanyahu announced the prayer area at the southern end of the Kotel would be expanded, using 18 million shekels ($5 million) of 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 B’Tzedek 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 Archaeological Council on the damage caused to the historic site by the work to expand the prayer space. 

Last week Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was pressuring Regev to approve the work. After consulting several religious figures, Regev decided to resign from the committee.

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