Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has demanded it be permitted its own legal representation in the High Court of Justice to protest the establishment of the Western Wall mixed-gender plaza, as ultra-Orthodox parties demanded the “total cancellation” of the government-approved plan to build a section for non-Orthodox prayer at the holy site.
The Rabbinate’s request was backed up by Jewish Home Minister Uri Ariel and his party member Betzalel Smotrich in a letter they penned to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, which also implored the Israeli leader to scrap the deal in defiance of “extremist elements across the sea,” in an apparent reference to Reform and Conservative Jewry.
The demands by the Haredi lawmakers, which marked at least the fourth time they have publicly sought to dissolve the deal, were decried by Women of the Wall and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Movement.
Israeli government ministers in January 2016 approved a plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, but progress has yet to be made. The state must respond to High Court of Justice petitions on their failure to implement the agreement and construct the plaza near Robinson’s Arch by next week.
The Haaretz news site reported Monday that the state will likely tell the court it plans to not implement the scheme, citing a source familiar with deliberations.
““It appears that Netanyahu has officially decided not to decide,” the source said.
Ahead of the state’s defense, the Rabbinate issued a strongly worded letter on Wednesday condemning the government’s position, which officially favors the deal.
“The position of the Chief Rabbinate is that the government decision on dividing the Western Wall is invalid and cannot stand,” it said, according to a copy obtained by the Israel Hayom daily. “The Chief Rabbinate is the highest halachic [Jewish legal] authority in the state, and therefore it is entirely forbidden to hold mixed prayer, men and women together, at any site of the Western Wall.”
At the prodding of the religious body, the Knesset’s Justice, Law and Constitution Committee on Thursday convened a meeting to demand the Rabbinate be allowed to represent itself independently of the state — a move opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
“We ask that you not silence us,” said Rabbi Refael Frank, an aide to Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, at the Knesset hearing. “It cannot be that we will receive no stage to express our opinion and that the court will not hear the stance of the Chief Rabbinate.”
A Justice Ministry representative at the hearing said a letter expressing the Rabbinate’s position will be included in the state response to the court.
“The state speaks with one voice through the attorney general,” said the Justice Ministry representative. “Contrary to other cases where the government and attorney general think differently, in this case the government and the attorney general agree.”
Jewish Home MK Smotrich, one of the lawmakers who called Thursday’s hearing, insinuated that Mandelblit could not be impartial on the matter, since he played an active role in formulating the Western Wall deal as cabinet secretary.
“There is a suspicion of a perceived conflict of interest since the attorney general, wearing another hat, formulated the deal with the Western Wall rabbi without the Chief Rabbinate, and now claims are being made against the deal that he formulated,” Smotrich said.
That suggestion was dismissed by the Justice Ministry attorney, who said “the attorney general knows how to disconnect things he did in the past as a government representative from his current role of defending the Western Wall deal.”
In a letter addressed to Netanyahu and posted by Ariel on Thursday evening, the agriculture minister and Smotrich asked the prime minister to make an exception for the Rabbinate and allow it to seek independent counsel.
The two lawmakers also urged the prime minister to scrap the Western Wall deal altogether.
“We ask you, please do not allow extremist elements across the sea to harm the unity of Israel and our longstanding traditions,” they wrote.
Also Thursday, the Shas party confirmed the ultra-Orthodox parties — key coalition partners for Netanyahu — were not backing down from their demands that the government annul the agreement.
“The unequivocal demand of the Haredi parties is the total cancellation of the Western Wall deal,” a statement from Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s office said. “That is, cancelling the government resolution on the Western Wall deal.”
Deri’s office said there was “no impending compromise with the prime minister” on the matter, disputing reports on Wednesday that the Haredi parties would concede the section if the government would provide separate entrances to the two prayer sections and cancel the formation of a pluralistic body tasked with overseeing the new site. The latter is viewed by the ultra-Orthodox as state recognition of Reform and Conservative Jewry, which they forcefully oppose.
Requests for comment to United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni went unanswered.
Shas also denied that a meeting on the subject had been held with Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was appointed to mediate. Hanegbi’s spokesperson did respond to a request for comment.
Shas and United Torah Judaism on Thursday held a joint press conference, in which they threatened to leave the coalition over government-approved construction on the Shabbat. The parties made no mention of the Western Wall deal.
In a statement on Wednesday, Women of the Wall decried the pushback by the Haredi parties as “outrageous” and said Netanyahu “has yet to harness the courage to enforce” the agreement.
“Following three years of negotiations with all involved parties* (including the Haredi parties and the Rabbinate who were updated regularly by the Kotel rabbi), and reaching an agreement accepted by all, it is outrageous that the government is even considering the possibility of backing out of its decision made on January 31, 2016, confirmed by 15 to 5 votes,” the group said.
“This new Haredi initiative to return to ‘status quo’ makes the Kotel Agreement redundant and sends us back to the day before negotiations, as it cancels two of its major elements: First, establishing an autonomous administration that is not subordinate to the Rabbanut and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation; Second, a visible shared entrance enabling visitors to the Western Wall a choice of sections in which to pray.”
The organization also noted that the ultra-Orthodox parties, along with the Western Wall rabbi and the Rabbinate, were all aware of the contours of the deal before the cabinet approved it in January 2016.
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria on Wednesday condemned the effort by the ultra-Orthodox parties as “a blow to the relationship between Israel and US Jewry.” Noting US Jewish efforts to combat Israel boycotts on campuses, Azaria said, “We cannot lose US Jewry, and this proposal is a threat to this support.”
A spokesperson for Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett indicated he would abide by Netanyahu’s final decision on the matter.
“He voted in favor of the compromise. At this point it’s in the hands of the prime minister,” the spokesperson said.