A serious confrontation at the Western Wall was averted Friday morning, following last-minute intervention by President Isaac Herzog.
Labor lawmaker Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, agreed to a request from the president to stay away from the Jewish holy site so as not to provoke ultra-Orthodox legislators, who had announced their intent to confront him should he show up. Kariv had been planning to use his parliamentary immunity to deliver a Torah scroll to Women of the Wall – the feminist prayer group that holds a monthly prayer session at the site – in defiance of regulations imposed by the ultra-Orthodox authority in charge of the Western Wall.
Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are part of the Knesset opposition, had threatened to physically prevent Kariv from handing over the Torah scroll, should he show up. In recent months, Kariv, who previously headed the Reform movement in Israel, has used his parliamentary immunity to bring the women’s prayer group a Torah scroll to use in the women’s section of the prayer plaza at during their Rosh Chodesh service.
After obtaining Kariv’s agreement to stay away, Herzog promised to hold meetings next week aimed at promoting pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall. Alon Tal, a lawmaker from Kachol Lavan active in the Israeli Conservative movement, also agreed not to show up, as he had planned.
Following Kariv’s announcement, United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni said the ultra-Orthodox would keep away as well, although they would “continue physically protecting the Western Wall's sanctity."
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In a statement, Herzog said: "The possibility of elected officials brawling at the remains of the temple, Judaism's holiest place and where Jews around the world look towards, gives me great anguish, especially when we remember how fights at this sight ended 2,000 years ago.
"Israel's haters hope for pictures of this sort and I call on everyone to exhibit restraint and show respect for one another in the hopes of finding ways to peace within our nation."
On Thursday, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to align himself with the extremist religious forces fighting to ban pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. Netanyahu shared a tweet by lawmaker Aryeh Dery, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party urging the public to join him and dozens of other Haredi worshipers at the Western Wall on Friday morning “so that, God forbid, the holy place will not be desecrated.”
Currently serving as opposition leader, Netanyahu had been prime minister when the Western Wall deal, which seeks to promote egalitarian prayer at the Jewish holy site, was initially approved. Under pressure from the Haredi coalition partners, he suspended the deal a year-and-a-half after it was approved by his government.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are anxious about plans by the new government to revive the deal and have vowed to fight them. Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai has already asked the cabinet secretary to schedule a meeting to vote on it, and there appears to be an overwhelming majority within the government in support of such a move.