An opposition lawmaker was set to present on Wednesday a bill aimed at enshrining in law plans to build a non-Orthodox prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a move aimed at countering a government decision to suspend an agreement with Liberal Jewish movements to establish the pluralistic plaza.
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, who co-chairs the Knesset caucus responsible for improving Israel’s ties with Jewish communities abroad, said his bill, drafted in 2016 but never presented to parliament, was an opportunity to reverse a mistaken decision.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been facing harsh criticism over a pair of decisions last week to renege on a January 2016 commitment to significantly upgrade the pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, and to advance a controversial bill critics say grants the ultra-Orthodox a monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel.
“The government decision to retract the Western Wall agreement is a significant threat to the unity of the Jewish people and to the historic ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Shai said a statement Tuesday.
The decisions, taken at the behest of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition members, were met with fierce opposition from American-Jewish groups, philanthropists, businessmen and various figures active in the Jewish world, as well as Israeli politicians, who expressed dismay and disappointment. Some have intimated the decisions might impact financial contributions to Israel and warned of eroding support for the Jewish state.
“The state, which was founded in order to assure religious and political freedom for the Jewish nation, is destroying with its own hands the most fundamental pillars of the nation-state of the Jewish people and leaving millions of Jews disappointed and in pain,” Shai continued.
“Impacting the freedom of religion of millions of Jews is to spit in their faces. Israel knows how to ask, but it doesn’t know how to give.”
Netanyahu has insisted that despite the cabinet decision, work will continue to develop what is currently a temporary pluralistic prayer section in the area of Robnison’s Arch, an archaeological site that is an extension of the Western Wall.
Non-Orthodox prayer has been permitted at the location for almost two decades, but liberal Jewish movements are demanding that it be upgraded to a permanent installation and that access to the area be improved to put it on a par with the more iconic Western Wall. Under the terms of the agreement the area was to be administered by a council of representatives from liberal streams of Judaism together with state appointed officials.
“This [decision] was a stupid, irresponsible, reckless and unnecessary step that should be reversed, and this is the opportunity,” Shai said and called on coalition members to break ranks and support the bill.
Presented as a member bill, the proposal requires a preliminary reading in the Knesset before moving on to a committee for fine tuning and going up for further readings.
Some coalition members have voiced their opposition to the government’s suspension of the agreed upon plan — notably Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who leads the Yisrael Beytenu party ,and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Likud party led by Netanyahu.
Liberman and Steinitz both voted against the cabinet decision last week to suspend the plan.
The conversion bill was frozen on Friday amid the uproar, with Netanyahu announcing that a state-appointed committee would try to reach an “agreed-upon arrangement within our people” over the next six months.
Speaking Monday at a Fourth of July celebrations at the residence of US ambassador to Israel David Friedman in Herzliya, Netanyahu said he was committed and “will remain committed to making every Jew feel at home in Israel, including at the Kotel [Western Wall],” which he repeated twice for emphasis.
“All we need is patience and perseverance. Patience, perseverance and courage is what the founders of America had in abundance,” he said.
On July 30 the High Court of Justice is to hear a suit against the government that was filed by the Reform and Conservative movements together with the Women of the Wall — a feminist prayer group. The government has until July 12 to respond to the petition that demands the Reform and Conservative movements be given their own permanent prayer section rather than the existing temporary one. They demand it either be at Robinson’s Arch or drawn from the current orthodox section.
The Western Wall, the holiest place of prayer for Jews, is honored as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It has unparalleled religious and symbolic importance to the Jewish people.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.