A day after Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett announced a provisional ramp near the Western Wall had been opened for egalitarian services, government and Jewish organization officials working on resolving the conflict over prayer at Judaism’s holiest site had one question: What was his big rush to circumvent the standard governmental procedures?
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Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up a committee to draft a list of concrete recommendations for resolving the mounting controversy between the ultra-Orthodox and other streams of Judaism over control of the rules governing prayer at the Western Wall. To date, these rules have been largely dictated by the ultra-Orthodox. Its recommendations, which have yet to be finalized, are meant to provide solutions both in the long term and the interim period. The committee, headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, is expected to submit its report any day now.
Also sitting on the committee are the former cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, who chaired it until he resigned, and Dena Zilber, the deputy attorney general for legislative affairs.
“It is not clear who authorized Bennett to do this, but what does seem obvious is that he wanted to create facts on the ground,” said a well-placed government source with knowledge of the committee’s activities, who asked not to be identified. The source was referring to Bennett’s decision to construct the provisional platform on the southern side of the Mughrabi bridge for the purpose of accommodating worshippers interested in participating in non-Orthodox services. Unlike Robinson’s Arch, the nearby site that has been the designated until now for non-Orthodox services, the new platform will be open around the clock, and worshippers will not be asked to pay for its use.
In response, a source in Bennett’s office issued the following statement: “This was done with the approval of the necessary government officials, and it was done now in order to provide every Jew with a place to pray during the holidays.”
In a video released by his office today, Bennett, who also serves as minister of Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, provides viewers with a tour of the new site and invites them to come pray there. Named “Azarat Yisrael,” it spans an area of 450 square meters and can accommodate up to 450 worshippers. Torah scrolls, prayer books and prayer shawls will also be available at the new site. His English-language presentation is clearly targeting Jewish viewers abroad.
Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the office of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was prepared to comment publicly on what appears to have been an attempt by Bennett to bypass the cabinet. In background conversations, though, sources in these and other bodies involved in efforts to resolve the conflict over prayer at the wall seemed rather surprised and even confounded by the move and its particular timing.
Earlier this year, Sharansky announced a plan to set up a new area of prayer at the Western Wall designated for mixed services. The area he envisioned would have been a natural continuation of the existing gender-segregated area, of equal size and equal level. It would also have provided worshippers with the ability to make direct physical contact with the ancient stones of the wall. Constructing such a plaza, by his own admission, would take several years in the best-case scenario.
The provisional ramp set up by Bennett lies below the existing prayer area and does not provide worshippers with physical access to the Western Wall.
The Mandelblit committee was asked to assess the feasibility of the Sharansky plan and to use it as a basis for its own recommendations. It was also asked to draft recommendations for the interim period until changes that require additional time to implement, as well as negotiations with other parties, could take effect.
On Sunday, several hours after Bennett announced the opening of the new provisional ramp, the Prime Minister’s Office, responding to angry reactions from various groups, among them Women of the Wall, issued a statement clarifying that the cabinet had not taken any decision pertaining to prayer at the wall. The Prime Minister’s Office was unable to say whether or not the religious affairs minister has the authority to construct on his own a ramp at the holy site, provisional or not.
Women of the Wall, the organization that has been leading the battle for women to be able to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, has expressed the strongest opposition to the Bennett initiative, and its supporters staging a full-day sit-in at the holy site in response. The pluralistic women’s group says it has no interest in praying in the new area, since many of its members are Orthodox and oppose participation in mixed services.
“Let’s be honest,” said one government source involved in recent efforts to reach a compromise. “The crisis to begin with was about women’s prayer, not about egalitarian prayer, so this is an issue that cannot be avoided.”
Indeed, Netanyahu had asked Sharansky to come up with a compromise under pressure from Jewish leaders abroad, who were enraged by the repeated arrests of Women of the Wall supporters at their monthly prayer services for wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries.
Several months ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that such practices are not a violation of the “local custom,” and the arrests have since come to an end. At the time of the ruling, however, Bennett expressed his intention of drafting new regulations that would redefine “local custom” in order to curtail the activities of Women of the Wall. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who by law is required to sign any such regulations, responded immediately by saying that she supports the court ruling and would have no part in overturning it.
Asked to respond to Bennett’s latest initiative, her office issued the following statement: “A special committee has been set up to address the issue of women’s prayer at the Western Wall. This committee has not yet completed its work or published its conclusions. Therefore, the justice minister has no intention of responding to rumors or half-truths. When the conclusions are published, she intends to study them and formulate her stance.”