Lawmakers to Push Netanyahu on Western Wall: Israel Must Guarantee Religious Freedom

As ultra-Orthodox work to prevent new mixed-prayer space at Western Wall, lawmakers from across the aisle to press Netanyahu to implement landmark Kotel agreement.

Ultra-Orthodox men argue with Reform worshipers during a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, June 2016.
Emil Salman

Thirty Israeli lawmakers, almost all opposition members, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday urging him to block a new 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 coalition. It 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 ongoing efforts by the ultra-Orthodox parties to prevent the construction of a new egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall. The plan to build this new plaza was approved last January by the government but has yet to be implemented.

Women hold Torah scrolls as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

>> 2016: Year of failure for religious pluralism at the Western Wall <<

In their letter, the lawmakers say the ultra-Orthodox bill would undermine plans to build the egalitarian plaza. “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.

The letter was initiated by MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), who heads the Knesset Jewish world caucus. Two members of the ruling coalition have also signed the letter: Yehuda Glick of Likud and Meirav Ben-Ari of Kulanu.

“The state of Israel was established to guarantee political and religious freedom to the Jewish people,” the letter says. “Now, with its own hands, the state is damaging the essential pillars for the existence of a nation-state for the Jewish people.”

Separately, Shai submitted a bill on Thursday that would give legal standing to the agreement approved by the government last January.

The Reform and Conservative movements, together with Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, have petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the government either build them an egalitarian space on the southern side of the Wall, as promised, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-separated spaces on the northern side to make room for mixed-prayer services.

The state has a deadline of  Sunday to respond to a court request that it explain why it has not implemented January's  agreement.