Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that there were difficulties that could hamper a historic agreement to allow egalitarian Jewish prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, sparking condemnation from the country’s Reform and Conservative movements.
He said he had appointed the head of his bureau to help work out the difficulties. David Sharan will “coordinate discussions on this issue with the various elements” and present recommendations within 60 days to resolve the difficulties, Netanyahu said.
A statement the Prime Minister’s Office said that “some difficulties have arisen” in the scheme, but noted that Netanyahu remains committed to resolving the problems and hopes to propose a solution within 60 days.
“Two months ago the government took a decision to implement the recommendations of an advisory team on the matter of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. After taking the decision, some difficulties have arisen. We are working to find a solution to them,” the statement read.
Netanyahu did not clarify what difficulties had arisen from the decision, which would move to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall alongside the traditional separated men’s and women’s sides.
Officials from the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism colored the decision as a Netanyahu retreat from pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community.
Earlier this month Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said his ultra-Orthodox Shas party would leave a government that recognized Reform Judaism and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who agreed to the compromise with non-Orthodox leaders over the future of the holy site, retracted his support and denounced the deal.
Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism said the agreement was for the benefit of Jewish unity.
“Implementing the plan for the the Western Wall is a test case of the ability of the government to implement its decisions, and to stand behind agreements and compromises that were intended to prevent unnecessary division in the Jewish people,” he said.
Kariv called on Netanyahu to “clarify to his Haredi partners [in the government] that the unity of the Jewish people and the connection between Israel and the Jewish world can’t be hostages to the street battles in the Haredi community.”
Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, said it was unthinkable for Netanyahu to change direction on the agreement.
“Not one of us would think that the Israeli government will back down from an historic compromise plan, that the sides reached after a long and intensive negotiation, and to which the prime minister committed himself at innumerable forums and gatherings,” Hess said according to the Hebrew-language Ynet website reported.
In a historic move, Israel’s cabinet voted two months ago to build a new plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall, adjacent to the current Orthodox prayer plaza. It was viewed as a victory for liberal streams of Judaism, which are dominant in the US
Yet the plan has since run into fierce opposition from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and groups in Israel, many of whom wield influence within Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government.
A string of ultra-Orthodox leaders criticized the deal and insulted Reform Jews. The day the Israeli government approved the deal, on January 31, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni called Reform Jews “clowns.” In late February, Israel’s chief rabbis asked the government to freeze the agreement.
The deal would expand the wall’s non-Orthodox section and construct a shared entrance for both sides. The Women of the Wall group has agreed to move their monthly services to the non-Orthodox section once the deal is implemented.
The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, is administered by ultra-Orthodox authorities, who have a monopoly over religious affairs in Israel and oppose mixed-gender or female-led prayers.