JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet has rescinded a government decision to create an official egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.
The decision announced on Sunday comes after the haredi Orthdox United Torah Judaism party and the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party, both members of the current government, put pressure on Netanyahu to scrap the agreement, including threatening to leave the coalition government.
As part of the decision, work on the egalitarian prayer area erected at Robinson’s Arch, located on the southern edge of the Western Wall plaza, will continue.
The prime minister has asked Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to formulate a new plan that will be acceptable to the religious parties.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz reportedly voted against the decision; Education Minister Naftali Bennett was not present for the vote.
The decision negates an agreement passed in January 2016 by the government for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, which was negotiated by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government.
Responding to the news, Sara Klein Wagner, president and CEO of the Jewish Community of Louisville, issued this statement:
“The Jewish Federation of Louisville is deeply disheartened and dismayed by yesterday’s action taken by the Israeli government to abandon their commitment to provide egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This sudden change does not align with our beliefs that all Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, should be allowed the same rights and privileges to worship in this holy space. This action rejects years of negotiations made in good faith with non-Orthodox religious movements, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and many others. This decision will continue to create a divide and alienate our Jewish community from Israel.”
She continued: “The Jewish Federation of Louisville stands strongly with today’s resolution from JAFI calling on the government to halt “dangerous and damaging steps” related to both the agreement for egalitarian prayer at the wall and the proposed conversion bill. This is a moment for our community to take pause. We are committed to bringing the leadership of Jewish Louisville together at this poignant moment in time to consider our relationship with the government of Israel. We are committed to one Jewish people, working together to embrace the spirit and hope of our Jewish homeland that reflects the rights and practices of all Jews.”
Under that agreement, the egalitarian section of the wall near Robinson’s Arch was to be expanded and placed under the authority of a pluralist committee. The section would have had a common entrance with the rest of the Western Wall plaza.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of board of governors of the Jewish Agency, said in a statement issued on Sunday that he is disappointed by the government’s decision.
“Five years ago, the Prime Minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’After four years of intense 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. 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 statement said.
“The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” Sharansky concluded.
In a post on Facebook, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, called the decision a “sad and shameful move that capitulates to the pressure of the Haredi parties.”
The decision is “a serious violation of the basic interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The prime minister and his partners lent a hand to an anti-Zionist move that undermines Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jewry, and weakens the connection of millions of Jews to Jerusalem.”
Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, called the decision “shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women.”
“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, 51 percent being women,” Hoffman continued.
“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. Just like you wouldn’t ask a man to take off his Kipa, don’t ask us to stop praying according to our conscience,” she said.
On Sunday morning some 100 members of the Women of the Wall participated in the monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall. Before entering the Western Wall plaza, the women’s bags and belongings were searched, including every page on every prayer book, the group said in a statement.
The women also met disturbances by haredi Orthodox women and girls who whistled, shouted and banged in order to silence the prayer. Despite the state’s commitment to prevent such disturbances, the teen-aged girls, dressed in black with their faces covered, were not removed from the women’s section as they continued to harass the worshipers.
The women also smuggled a Torah scroll in to the women’s section and read from it as part of the service.
In the States, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, blasted Netanyahu’s about face.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to say ‘no’ to his previous ‘yes’ is an unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry. We are assessing all next steps,” Jacobs said in a statement. “The Israeli Supreme Court will rule, but even in waiting for the court we will not be still or silent. The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parties have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must—and will—be ended.