The Prime Minister’s Office is to provide 100 million shekels (some $25 million) in funding over the next five years to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, an entity established by the government in 1988 to administer, preserve and develop the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. The funding is part of a five-year plan to develop the plaza, the adjacent Western Wall tunnels and other properties administered by the foundation.
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The plaza has been a major source of contention in recent years over efforts to conduct non-Orthodox prayers in the prayer areas at the site. The cabinet recently approved a plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer area for non-Orthodox groups and the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, but there is growing ultra-Orthodox opposition to the arrangement and the plan’s implementation has been delayed. The egalitarian space is to be run by a board representing the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall.
Several ultra-Orthodox leaders have publicly opposed the plan recently. Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has said he will not sign the deal, a move the cabinet can circumvent. The Chief Rabbinate meanwhile is putting together its own alternative plan, which will reportedly omit any recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.
In response to the continuing controversy, officials at the PMO released a statement Monday saying “the prime minister is committed to the government decision.” According to the statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked those wishing to amend the decision to submit their responses to him in two to three weeks.
The new 100-million-shekel funding plan follows 85 million shekels that the government provided over the past five years. In addition, this year the PMO will provide about 32 million shekels from its support budget for development work in the Western Wall tunnels, which date from the time of King Herod in the first century B.C.E.
The Western Wall Foundation was provided the funding without the usual requirement for public bidding since it was recognized in 2004 as a government non-profit organization responsible for administering the complex. In 2010, it was decided that the foundation would be responsible for expanded activity encouraging visits to the Wall, for activities geared to students and soldiers, improvements to infrastructure and the maintenance and development of the Western Wall tunnels.
The new funding will be coming from the budgets of the Interior Ministry, the Transportation Ministry and the ministries of finance, tourism, defense, education and the PMO.
With reporting by JTA.