Israeli government rescinds pluralistic Western Wall agreement

Posted June 26, 2017

Israel's government formally suspended plans on Sunday for a mixed-gender prayer space at Jerusalem's Western Wall, bowing to opposition from Orthodox Jewish politicians to reforms at one of Judaism's holiest sites.

In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are do not sit or stand together while praying, and are separated by a mechitza (a barrier), and only men can lead the prayer service or read from the Torah during regular services. In parallel, the government also approved a freeze on the Western Wall plan, meaning that the situation in Western Wall Plaza will remain as is and any request to renew the plans will require another government decision.

In a September 2015 letter to AJC, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated his commitment "to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people", and pledged "to unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community - Reform, Conservative or Orthodox".

However, it went against a January 2016 compromise agreement that the government reached with the Reform and Conservative movements, which have large followings outside Israel, as well as with the feminist group Women of the Wall that would have, for the first time, officially recognized the rights of liberal Jews in Israel.

On Sunday, 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".

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz reportedly voted against the decision; Education Minister Naftali Bennett was not present for the vote.

Sunday's decision to cancel the new Western Wall arrangement has drawn denunciations from liberal Jews in Israel and the United States.

The decision is "a serious violation of the basic interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people". The Israeli decision angered numerous women who had been involved in the negotiations. "We were invited to negotiate with the Prime Minister and we did so for two years in good faith".

"Today's decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world together increasingly more hard", Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a main outreach group to Jewish communities overseas.

Arieh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he was pleased the government blocked a plan that would have harmed the "sanctity of the site". The decision was a "de-facto cancelation of the plan", the ultra-Orthodox parties said in a joint statement, noting it could only be changed by a further government decision.

"It's a bad 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. They have already petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to implement the decision and still hold out hope it will overturn it.