Bennett Condemns Politicization of Western Wall Amid Push for Mixed-gender Prayer

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett argues that if not curbed, this 'political campaign' will cause huge damage

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Israeli Knesset earlier this week.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Israeli Knesset earlier this week.Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Friday that the Western Wall is being co-opted for political purposes with the aim of "slamming the government," amid ongoing disagreements over mixed-gender prayer at the holy site.

"The Western Wall, this beloved place, which is so important to each and every Jew, the place that unites us, generation after generation, especially after it was liberated by Israeli soldiers during the [1967] six-day war, is being used in a political campaign to slam the government," Bennett wrote in a Facebook post.

He went on to warn that if not curbed, this "campaign" will cause huge damage, arguing that some things are sacred and should not "touched."

In response, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party urged the prime minister to reject calls for reform. "No dialogue is needed," their statement read. "Do not touch the sacred Western Wall. Don't change anything."

Women of the Wall arrive at the Western Wall on Friday.Credit: Emil Salman

Rakefet Ginsberg, CEO of Masorti Israel, called on Bennett to ratify the Western Wall reforms as soon as possible, which "he himself advocated for several years ago." She added that everything must be done "to ensure every Jew can pray in his or her way at the Western Wall."

Later on Friday, the Reform movement in Israel said in a statement that "the Western Wall plan reflects an appropriate compromise which is the result of a years-long dialogue between all the involved parties.

"Canceling the plan has rewarded the extreme factions who try to preserve the Western Wall as an ultra-orthodox synagogue, one that does not reflect the views of most Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. Anyone who believes in a respectful discourse and seeks to promote temperance over extremism must put the Western Wall plan into action as soon as possible," the statement said.

On Monday, multiple party leaders traded barbs over proposed reforms to Israel's religious status quo, including a return to a controversial deal shelved in 2017 allowing men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli expressed determination to push for an egalitarian division of the Western Wall complex, while Shas chairman Arye Dery charged that the comments were a "declaration of war against the country's Jewish identity."

This debate similarly came to a head last week when the feminist prayer group, Women of the Wall, were met with violence at the Western Wall as they tried to enter the plaza holding Torah scrolls, and carried empty Torah mantles to the prayer area.

Around 2,000 Orthodox protesters arrived at the scene, as large police forces created a barrier between them and the female worshipers. Security guards from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation attempted to stop worshipers from the group from reaching the site.

Overnight into Friday, Labor lawmaker Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, agreed to a request from President Isaac Herzog 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 in defiance of regulations imposed by the Haredi authority in charge of the Kotel.

A day prior, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu amplified ultra-Orthodox calls to mobilize against the “desecration” of the Western Wall by non-Orthodox Jews, despite past rhetoric promising that the space would remain a place of pluralistic unity rather than division.

Noa Spiegel contributed to this article.

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