The Shas party is pushing forward with a proposal that would make it illegal to hold pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall plaza, calling for the bill to face a ministerial vote as early as Sunday.
The proposed law would impose penalties of six months’ imprisonment or a fine of NIS 10,000 ($2,600) on anyone who holds a mixed-gender service or women’s Torah readings, and women who don a prayer shawl or phylacteries, at any area of the Western Wall, even those that had not been traditionally set aside for prayer.
In its description of the bill, the ultra-Orthodox party said it was meant to prevent actions, including “religious ceremonies,” that “do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation that prays there.”
Shas has asked for the bill to face a vote at Sunday’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which decides government policy on legislative proposals and could guarantee coalition support for the measure. The party is said to expect other coalition members to support the bill.
“We supported an increased tax on third homes, banning the muezzin call and other laws because it was important to our coalition partners. We expect them to support this even if it’s not their preference,” a party source told the Walla news site.
The proposal would define the entire area as a holy site governed under the same definitions of religious practice and law set by Israel’s rabbinic courts and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Prayer services would thus be limited solely to state-approved Orthodox practice.
Should it pass into law, it would effectively end the negotiated agreement passed by the cabinet almost a year ago that approved the construction of an egalitarian prayer plaza alongside the Orthodox-controlled one at the holy site.
The compromise called for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in part of the Davidson Archaeological Park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a smaller, temporary prayer platform set up at the site.
In September, the High Court of Justice called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement the compromise agreement allowing for egalitarian services and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, noting that it had already passed as a cabinet decision.
Ahead of a further hearing set for next week, the Chief Rabbinate will on Friday present a petition to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit claiming that the High Court does not have jurisdiction over the Western Wall, Army Radio reported Thursday.
According to the opinion written by the rabbinate’s chief legal adviser Harel Goldberg, the courts are prevented from making decision pertaining to “holy sites” based on a British Mandate law dating to 1922. Goldberg claims that the law is still legally binding given that it was never nullified by Knesset legislation.
Despite gaining support from a number of Likud and Jewish Home MKs, the Shas proposal on the Western Wall is likely to be opposed by Netanyahu and Jewish Home chair Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who back the 2015 compromise, as well as religiously liberal ministers and lawmakers in the coalition, including in the Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu factions. It is thought to stand little chance of making it into law.
Reform and Conservative leaders from both Israel and the US have rallied against the proposal, calling on Netanyahu to fulfill the compromise agreement and torpedo the bill.
When it was approved, the Robinson’s Arch plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” by many Diaspora leaders, but within days became the target of ultra-Orthodox ire and threatened to cause tension in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition. Its implementation has been frozen for the past year.
In March, Shas chair Aryeh Deri reportedly proclaimed that the Western Wall plan “is over.”
The deal was reached after three years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and then-outgoing cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, who currently serves as Israel’s attorney general. The negotiations included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, and the Women of the Wall activist group, which has campaigned for egalitarian prayer to be permitted at the site.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.