Israel freezes Western Wall compromise that was to create egalitarian prayer section

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet has frozen a government decision to create an official egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

The suspension announced Sunday comes after the haredi Orthodox 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.

Under the 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.”

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.

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