Israeli cabinet reneges on pledge to create egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

Israel’s government on Sunday nixed an ambitious plan approved last year to allow mixed-gender religious services at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, angering many American Jews, who said they felt insulted and abandoned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Israel’s holy Jewish sites are managed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and in keeping with their traditions, the area for prayer at the Western Wall is divided according to gender. Women are not permitted to read aloud from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.

Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, including the Reform and Conservative denominations that are prevalent in the United States, allow men and women to pray side by side, and female rabbis regularly lead services. 

Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel have long pressed for an area of the Western Wall where fathers can stand beside daughters and mothers beside sons for prayer and religious services.  

A 2016 plan approved by the government to provide such an area was described as a “fair and creative solution” by Netanyahu. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will seek a new solution to the fraught issue of a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people,” he said at the time.  

According to a study by the Pew Research Center published in March 2016, more than half of American Jews identify themselves as either Reform or Conservative, while only about 10 percent observe Orthodox practices. In Israel, only a small minority are affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements.  

Sunday’s decision to cancel the new Western Wall arrangement has drawn denunciations from liberal Jews in Israel and the United States. It also appeared to threaten Netanyahu’s fragile coalition, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — head of a faction that represents secular Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union — vowing to fight back.  

“It actually causes terrible harm to Jewish unity and to the alliance between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” Israeli media quoted him as saying. 

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, editor in chief Yaakov Katz commented: “Sunday will go down in history as a shameful day for the State of Israel, another nail in the coffin of Israel’s failing relationship with Diaspora Jewry.”

“Netanyahu’s office made sure to issue a statement that Sunday’s cabinet decision was not to cancel the previous deal but merely to freeze it. This is a sham,” Katz wrote. “The deal had already been frozen for the last 18 months and wasn’t moving forward. By taking the decision Sunday, Netanyahu is simply signaling to Diaspora Jewry that at the end of the day, his political survival is more important than Israeli-Diaspora relations.”

The prime minister said in a statement that he would seek an alternative solution, appointing senior minister Tzachi Hanegbi to look into it. 

“The prime minister’s decision came from the realization that over the last year and a half nothing has progressed with this plan, so another solution needs to be found,” Hanegbi said.  

“We are not going to quietly accept this. It is so insulting, I know there will be a series of responses,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in 900 synagogues in the United States and Canada.  

The decision “delegitimizes the overwhelming majority of Jews on the planet,” Jacobs said. 

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel who formulated the original plan, said he was deeply disappointed. “Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to bring all the sides together to create a solution where there would be one wall for one people,” he said.  

Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, a feminist group that has been pushing for a solution at the site, described Netanyahu’s decision as “shameful.” 

“It’s a terrible day for women in Israel when the prime minister sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists, who want to enforce their religious customs while intentionally violating the rights of the majority of the Jewish world,” she said.  

Even though the new prayer space had been approved by the government, the plan stalled because of ultra-Orthodox opposition. In September, Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements, together with Women of the Wall, filed a legal petition to force the government to divide the plaza.  

The Israeli daily Haaretz on Sunday quoted Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as saying that the original plan was approved “because the Haredi parties did not pay attention to its details,” a reference to the ultra-Orthodox parties.

In Deri’s view, the Reform movement’s decision to file a petition shut the door to a compromise, Haaretz reported.   

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