The Israeli cabinet approved on Sunday a special 110 million shekel ($35.4 million) allocation for infrastructure work at the Western Wall and for programs aimed at increasing the number of visitors to the Jewish holy site. But the five-year budgetary outlay does not include even a single shekel for upgrading the egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the wall.
As a sign of their discontent with the proposal, which was submitted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, four cabinet members – Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev (Labor), Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor), Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Intelligence Affairs Minister Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) – abstained in the vote.
“Just last night, four members of the Reform congregation in Colleyville, Texas, were held hostage in their synagogue,” said Shai. “Their abductor didn’t ask what denomination they belonged to. We in the government represent all the Jewish people, and it is our obligation to tend to both prayer plazas – the Orthodox and egalitarian. Every Jew is entitled to their place at the Kotel.”
Shai added that he and the other ministers who abstained remained committed to the so-called Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with an upgraded egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site, along with official status. “There is an expectation that we will make this happen,” he said.
Referring to the amount of time that had passed since the new government was formed, Shai added: “We’ve already lost seven months. We need not lose more time.”
In recent weeks, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as well as representatives of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, have met twice with Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo to discuss the future of the Western Wall deal, given that several Orthodox members of the cabinet are opposed to implementing it in full. The movement leaders were told at both meetings that the government intends to move ahead with infrastructure work at the site but could not commit to anything beyond that at this stage.
They were, therefore, deeply disappointed to discover that the government outlay approved on Sunday will be used for infrastructure and development work, as well as educational programs, at the gender-segregated prayer plaza at the northern expanse, but not at their space.
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In a joint statement, the Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall, urged the government to implement the Western Wall deal with no further delays so that “a dignified and egalitarian prayer space will be available to the public at large in Israel and the Diaspora.”
Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the former executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, called the government decision “puzzling.”
“How can it be that such a huge sum is being allocated to the gender-segregated space, while the egalitarian space is being treated as a poor orphan?” he asked. “Instead of sending a message of appeasement to Diaspora Jewry, the government is turning them away empty-handed, and it is not clear why. Netanyahu promised and later disappointed them, but why is the current government following in his path?”
The 110 million shekel budget approved by the government will be transferred to the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which will oversee its outlay.