Bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure, PM halts pluralistic Western Wall deal

Israel’s Reform movement says freezing the plan to build mixed-gender prayer plaza harms Israel and its connection to the Jewish people; Jewish Agency expresses ‘deep disappointment’

The Times of Israel/June 25, 2017

By Amanda Borschel-Dan and Alexander Fulbright

The cabinet on Sunday suspended a government-approved plan to establish a pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, following calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal.

The announcement was swiftly condemned by Israel’s Reform Movement and the Jewish Agency.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman and Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to formulate a new plan for the site.

It also said construction work on the southern edge of the Western Wall plaza — where the pluralistic prayer pavilion was slated to be built — would continue uninterrupted.

The government decision to freeze the plan came amid calls from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to dial back the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was approved by government ministers in January 2016.

It also coincided with a High Court of Justice deadline Sunday for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement and construct the mixed-gender plaza near Robinson’s Arch by this week.

“From our point of view this is a huge embarrassment,” the head of Israel’s Reform Movement Rabbi Gilad Kariv told The Times of Israel minutes after the announcement. “The government has acceded to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties,” he said, and delegitimized the government decision that was passed on January 31, 2016.

“I think it is a failure of the Netanyahu government and harms the interests of Israel and its connection with the Jewish people,” said Kariv. who learned of the government decision from the media.

Kariv told The Times of Israel that the High Court case was progressing apace and he hopes it may still be able to resurrect the deal.

“We knew that the government was discussing the issue, but it is important to note that it did not update us with its decision. This behavior, from our point of view, shows that it is impossible to negotiate with them,” said Kariv. “We only hope that the court can defend the principles of democracy for Israel.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who was at the meeting in which Netanyahu announced his decision, said in a statement, “As chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the Government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

“After four years of intensive negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” he said.

“Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” said Sharansky.

In a statement, the Women of the Wall organization slammed the government for “kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists.”

“The fact that the prime minister, who himself initiated and led the agreement is bending and retreating from that historic decision is shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women,” said Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall. “It’s a terrible day for women in Israel when the PM 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, 51% being women.”

“Women of the Wall will continue to pray as we always have in the Women’s Section at the Western Wall, with a Torah scroll and prayer shawls, until women’s equality will be established at the Kotel [Western Wall],” she added.

Last week, the ultra-Orthodox parties again demanded the “total cancellation” of last year’s plan, as Israel’s Chief Rabbinate demanded it be allowed to hire its own lawyers to oppose the deal in the High Court.

The Rabbinate’s request was backed up by Jewish Home Minister Uri Ariel and his party member Betzalel Smotrich in a letter they penned to Netanyahu on Thursday, which also implored the Israeli leader to scrap the deal in defiance of “extremist elements across the sea,” in an apparent reference to Reform and Conservative Jewry.

On Sunday, Ariel hailed Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the plan, saying that if allowed to move forward the decision “would harm Israeli society.”

“I am happy that the government today approved the decision restoring the situation at the Western Wall to what it previously was, and with this [that] we succeeded in preventing an unnecessary split among the Jewish people and an attack on the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people,” the agriculture minister said in a statement.

Despite the opposition to the egalitarian prayer plaza by religious lawmakers, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said earlier Sunday that canceling the compromise to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall was damaging and that his Yisrael Beytenu party would not back it.

On Thursday, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism warned that nixing the plan would be a “slap in the face to the vast majority of world Jewry.”

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