The heads of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties urged the government Sunday to cancel its landmark decision to give liberal Jews their own egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
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Ministers Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman, Uri Ariel and David Azoulay, and MK Moshe Gafni, sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a letter Sunday night, demanding that the matter be brought up for a government vote next Sunday.
Shas and United Torah Judaism have voiced opposition to the new mixed-prayer space from the onset, and introduced legislation seeking to undermine it.
The Reform and Conservative movements, together with activist group Women of the Wall, have in turn petitioned the High Court, demanding that the government either build the egalitarian space on the southern side of the Wall, as promised or, alternatively, redivide the existing gender-separated spaces on the northern side to make room for mixed-prayer services.
Last month, 30 Israeli lawmakers, mostly opposition MKs, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to block a bill that would ban all practices not deemed strictly Orthodox at the Western Wall.
The bill was submitted to the Knesset two weeks ago by a group of 16 ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, all members of the governing coalition.
Their proposed law would ban egalitarian prayer services anywhere near the Western Wall and prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah scroll at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines.
The legislation is part of efforts by the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties to prevent the construction of the new prayer space, which was approved by the government a year ago but has yet to be implemented.
In their letter, the 30 lawmakers said the Haredi bill would undermine plans to build the egalitarian prayer space. “We view with great severity the incompetence of the government in implementing the Kotel plan, as well as the growing rift between Israel and the Jewish people, and urge the government to go back to the original plan,” they wrote.
Responding to Sunday’s announcement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said, “The ultra-Orthodox parties are continuing their campaign of incitement against millions of Jews and they continue to stir controversy, even where historic compromises have already been reached.” He called on Netanyahu to resist succumbing to “political blackmail.
“Israel’s relations with the Jewish world cannot be sold out just because of internal struggles in the Haredi world, and because of the ongoing competition among ultra-Orthodox lawmakers over who can curse Reform Jews in more vulgar language,” he added.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, accused the Haredi parties of exploiting Netanyahu’s political vulnerability to win concessions just prior to the High Court having its say.
“They are afraid,” he said. “They know the High Court justices will examine the compromise that was reached and conclude that it was a good thing. If, God forbid, it is scrapped, the State of Israel can begin mourning the death of its relations with Diaspora Jewry.”
However, Hess was optimistic that Netanyahu would fulfill his promise to create the new prayer space because “this government will not want to be remembered as the one that closed the door on Israel serving as the state of the Jewish people.”