New Israeli Plan Would Remove Women of the Wall From Main Prayer Plaza

Cabinet expected to hear proposal to relegate women's group to remote section of Kotel; Women of the Wall say impending plan seeks to 'exile' Jews who refuse to conform to ultra-Orthodox tradition from holy site.

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The Women of the Wall on Sunday launched a 24-hour sit-in at the Western Wall in protest against an impending plan to bar the group from praying as it sees fit at the holy site.

Israel’s cabinet secretary was expected to propose a plan on Sunday that aims to resolve the ongoing dispute over the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, including women, to pray at the Western Wall according to their customs.

The proposal, which was to be unveiled by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, departs from Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s proposal to set up a new space for egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall, which won broad support from Jewish communities in Israel and the United States. It also effectively snubs a ruling from Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel, which permitted the Women of the Wall to pray according to their custom in the existing women’s prayer section.

Mendelblit, who headed a committee tasked with ironing out the details of the plan, including setting a timetable for implementation, was expected to propose a 400-square-meter space for egalitarian worship, with no rabbinical supervision, at Robinson’s Arch. There women would be permitted to read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.

The Women of the Wall, a group that has been waging a struggle for equal prayer rights, rejected the proposal outright.

"The plan will effectively exile women and all Jews who pray in a way that is not [in accordance with] ultra-Orthodox tradition to Robinson’s Arch and away from the area of the Western Wall where Jews have prayed for generations," the group said in a statement.

It further attacked Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett for promoting the proposal.

"What has been proven today is that the bullies were victorious – with their assault, spitting and cursing at women," the statement said. "Mendelblit and Bennett have given in to the threats and violence of the Haredi extremist minority in Israel and this is a dangerous precedent for our democracy."

On Sunday afternoon, Bennett released a statement saying he was responsible for the new plan. The proposed solution "aims to express the unity of the nation," Bennett wrote, adding that he seeks to reach a compromise on the matter by Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. The minister noted that the plan was devised in collaboration with Sharansky.

Sharansky, in turn, released a statement in which he "congratulated" Bennett for the forthcoming initiative.

“This temporary prayer plaza is a gesture of goodwill on behalf of Minister Bennett towards Judaism’s religious streams," he said. "It is my hope that this step can be helpful in creating an atmosphere of good will and trust."

Minimal access to Kotel

Haaretz has learned that Mendelblit’s proposal follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Zvi Hauser, also a member of the current committee. Some years ago, Hauser suggested that the government set up space for egalitarian worship in the area known as the “Southern Wall” — an extension of the main prayer plaza that is separate from it and that is located in the same archaeological park housing Robinson’s Arch, a Herodian-era street and other archaeological artifacts. Today, the area of worship contains a small wooden platform built for the Women of the Wall roughly a decade ago, which the group said did not meet their demand to be allowed to worship freely at the Western Wall.

Mendelblit was expected to suggest that the area set aside for worship be expanded, that it be open for prayer 24 hours a day, and that an ark with Torah scrolls be placed there for use by non-Orthodox groups.

His proposal differs from Sharansky’s, which suggested that the egalitarian worship area occupy most of the archaeological park and allow access to the stones of the Western Wall. Although Sharansky’s plan garnered praise, the archaeologists who run the site firmly opposed it, while others took issue with construction work at the sacred site. Mendelblit’s proposal, which involves only part of the area, gives non-Orthodox worshippers minimal access to the Western Wall stones.

The new plan sets a precedent — it provides government recognition for non-Orthodox movements within Judaism — but the major problem is its timing. The various sides in the dispute have already expressed their views on Sharansky’s plan. Most agreed to accept that plan even though it included physical changes to the entire Western Wall plaza — and this after the Jerusalem District Court ruled Women of the Wall could worship in the women’s section almost unimpeded.

Plan won't solve 'Jewish war'

Judge Sobel’s ruling has not been enforced in recent months because of ultra-Orthodox protests against Women of the Wall, but the women’s rights group is unlikely back down from its demand to worship in the women’s section now that the ruling has been handed down. Women of the Wall had expressed reservations about Sharansky’s plan, which is broader than the one Mendelblit was expected to unveil, meaning it probably won’t accept the Hauser-Mendelblit proposal either. The Reform Movement in Israel and the United States will almost certainly not accept it. It is not clear how the Conservative Movement, which for all practical purposes runs the Southern Wall area, will respond to the plan, which expands and improves the worship options in the area.

“This compromise will probably not resolve the Jewish war over the Western Wall,” said Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute. “Instead, it’s another round in the war, which evidently will go on for many more years.”

The government’s main problem, politically and legally, is the ruling Judge Sobel issued in April — a decision that served as a dramatic turning point in Women of the Wall’s struggle. It allowed the group to worship “according to its custom” in the women’s section by giving a broad interpretation to a High Court of Justice ruling from 2003 on Women of the Wall and regulations for protecting holy sites. Although Judge Sobel’s ruling changed the situation drastically, the state decided not to appeal it.

Mendelblit’s anticipated recommendations constitute an attempt to bypass Judge Sobel’s decision, or even intent to challenge it in court. If the government adopts Mendelblit’s proposal, the case will almost certainly end up in either the Jerusalem District Court or the Supreme Court.

The Reform Movement urged the government to maintain dialogue over the proposal and avoid taking unilateral steps.

"…In any scenario we will insist that an area for egalitarian worship be an integral part of the national and official site of the Western Wall, and on a clear timetable for the full implementation of the Sharansky plan," the movement said in a statement.

"We believe that every Jew, man or woman, should feel at home in this important site, and that only a plan based on mutual respect, tolerance and recognition that the Western Wall does not belong to a single group will accomplish the hoped-for goal.”

Women praying at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters
Israeli policemen block ultra-Orthodox Jewish women as members of Women of the Wall (not pictured) leave the Western Wall after a monthly prayer session there, May 10, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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