Israel’s newly announced plan to build a mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall violates the status-quo agreement governing the area, Palestinian Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs Youssef Ideiss said on Monday.
The plan, lauded by liberal Jewish groups and approved by the cabinet on Sunday, “is another Israeli attempt to change the status quo at the Temple Mount,” Ideiss said, according to the Walla news website.
Israel will use the expansion of the non-Orthodox section to carry out archaeological digs and “Judaicize the holy site,” he claimed.
The Western Wall prayer plaza, below a Roman-era Temple Mount retaining wall, is the holiest site where Jews can pray. While the Jordanian-run Waqf governs the top of the Temple Mount, known as the al-Aqsa compound to Muslims and home to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel maintains control over access as well as religious services at the Western Wall, as part of a status quo agreement in place since 1967. Israel does not allow Jews to pray atop the mount.
But Ideiss claimed the Western Wall was a part of the Temple Mount compound and “a holy Islamic site expropriated by Israel in 1967.”
According to Muslim tradition, the Western Wall is where the prophet Mohammad tied the winged animal Buraq, which he rode on the night he ascended to heaven.
In October, the Palestinian Authority attempted to have the United Nations recognize the Western Wall as a Muslim holy site.
The new plan to expand the non-Orthodox Jewish prayer section of the Western Wall is a compromise in the decades-long fight between Reform and Conservative Jews and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. Under the deal, the non-Orthodox prayer section at the wall will be expanded by some 10,000 square feet to house an interdenominational place of worship separate from the main plaza.
The expanded plaza will be built south of the main Western Wall prayer plaza, over ruins from the Temple and in an area known as Robinson’s Arch.
The Temple Mount is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinians frequently charge that Israel is trying to change the long-standing status quo, which allows Jews to visit, but not pray, at the site.
The accusations have at times sparked rounds of deadly violence.
Israel has repeatedly and vehemently denied Palestinian allegations that it is trying to change the status quo and has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of lying and inciting to violence.
Egalitarian prayer section ‘profanes’ holy site
The approval of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall was also met with criticism from a major US ultra-Orthodox organization, who on Monday said the compromise “profanes” the holy site.
“Designating an area at the Kotel Maaravi [Western Wall] for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews,” Agudath Israel of America said in a statement released on Monday.
The organization called it a “minor miracle” that Jews of all affiliations have prayed together at the site for the past three decades, adding that the reason it has been successful is due to “the maintenance at that holy place of a standard — that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition — that all Jews, even those who might prefer other standards or none at all, can abide.”
However, Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praised the passage of the agreement, calling it “historic.”
“We fully appreciate that much remains to be done to further religious pluralism in Israel,” he added.
Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in a statement that her organization “has long promoted equal access to the Western Wall for all Jews regardless of denomination or gender.”
She called the Israeli government’s approval of the plan “a huge victory for egalitarian prayer services, religious tolerance, and gender equality, and for all those, including NCJW, who struggled over many years to make this happen.”
“The decision will help heal a rift that developed over this issue between the government and Jews who are not Orthodox but desired access to the Wall. Addressing this rift will also strengthen ties between Israel and American Jews in particular, most of whom are not Orthodox, but Reform and Conservative,” Kaufman said.
Irina Nevzlin, chair of the board of directors of The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, said in a statement: “To see such a thorny issue resolved, through discussion and compromise, underlines the huge importance of building bridges and connections across the Jewish world.”
Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the United States and in Israel also welcomed the agreement, as did the Jewish Federations of North America, which lobbied heavily for the compromise.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky told JTA the compromise ensured that “everybody wins in the end,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal “a fair and creative solution.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, said he heard the decision approving the agreement “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief,” while Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”