Amid furor, PM shelves bill that would criminalize mixed prayer at Western Wall

Nixing egalitarian prayer area, Shas proposal provided for jail terms or fines for mixed-gender prayer, immodest clothing; Netanyahu: ‘It won’t come up right now; status quo stays’

People gather to hear a reading of the Book of Lamentations at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on August 6, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
People gather to hear a reading of the Book of Lamentations at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on August 6, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that proposed legislation by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to impose sweeping new restrictions on freedom of worship at the Western Wall had been frozen.

Netanyahu said he had spoken with coalition chiefs and they agreed the bill “won’t come up right now.” In a message to coalition party leaders, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who heads the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, specified that the bill would not be brought before the committee when it convenes Sunday. Later Thursday, Shas back-tracked on the bill as well.

The extraordinary legislation would ban egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer at the section of the holy site where it is now allowed, criminalize the activity of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, and ban visitors from wearing attire deemed immodest.

It would penalize offenders with a six-month prison term or a NIS 10,000 ($2,900) fine.

The bill, which had been mentioned in coalition agreements in general terms, was added at the last moment to Sunday’s agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, with Hebrew media reporting that Shas party leader Aryeh Deri wanted the bill to pass its preliminary reading in the plenum over the next few days.

The Ynet news site cited sources in Likud saying the party had been caught by surprise by Shas’s move. The report said the incident highlighted the “complex relationship” between Deri and Netanyahu.

On Thursday afternoon the prime minister released a video, seeking to calm fears and saying the rules at the holiest site where Jews can pray would remain unchanged.

“I heard the headlines this morning about the Western Wall and I wish to reassure and also to clarify: The status quo at the Kotel, which is precious to all Jews, will be kept precisely as it is today,” Netanyahu said.

“The Western Wall will remain exactly as it is today,” he said.

The prime minister did not expressly rule out some form of the bill being brought forward in the future, however.

Thousands of worshipers crowd the Western Wall in Jerusalem for traditional selihot prayers the day before Yom Kippur, October 10, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In an about-face, Shas said it welcomed Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the bill and maintain the status quo “as it has been until now.”

“The Western Wall doesn’t need any law,” the party said hours after submitting the bill.

“Most of the Jewish nation respects the holiness of the place, except for the provocateur women who don’t cease turning it into an arena of political combat, all under the cover of the High Court,” the statement claimed, referring to the Women of the Wall group that advocates for women to be allowed to perform Torah readings at the Western Wall and, more broadly, for religious freedom in Israel.

The party also asserted it had never planned to pass the clauses relating to jail time or fines for immodest clothing, saying those were remnants of an old law that had slipped into the bill and dismissing the notion as “cheap demagoguery” that “anyone of sound mind” could work out.

“Shas will continue to defend the sanctity of the Western Wall and the rights of all secular, traditional, religious and Haredi Jews to pray at the holy site according to the status quo,” the statement concluded.

Filed by Shas MK Uriel Buso, the bill would seek to criminalize mixed-gender prayer anywhere at the Western Wall, including the pluralistic prayer area.

It stipulates that it will be prohibited to “hold a ceremony, including a religious ceremony, not in accordance with the site’s traditions, that harms the feelings of the worshipers in relation to the site.” The “site’s traditions” are defined in the bill as being set by the ultra-Orthodox-led Chief Rabbinate and the appointed rabbi of the Western Wall, currently Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.

In addition, the proposed law would outlaw wearing “attire that doesn’t befit the sanctity of the site” — a reference to clothing, especially women’s, deemed insufficiently modest by ultra-Orthodox standards.

It would also make playing music or singing at the site without prior approval a criminal offense, and would ban violations of the Sabbath Jewish day of rest at the site — using mobile phones, for example.

According to a map attached to the law bill, all the aforementioned restrictions would be in effect throughout the entire area of the Western Wall site, including the adjacent Davidson Center and the egalitarian plaza, south of the central plaza, that currently serves as a restriction-free prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews.

A map of the area of the Western Wall attached to a coalition bill unveiled February 9, 2023, with the highlighted black line defining the area of the site affected by its prohibitions. This includes the area of the existing egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer plaza, which has been highlighted in green by The Times of Israel.

Within the women’s section at the Wall, the law would outlaw ceremonies that include bringing out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing a shofar, wearing a tallit prayer shawl, or putting on tefillin (phylacteries). All of these have been practiced by Women of the Wall at the site. A series of court rulings have upheld its right to perform these rituals at the women’s section of the Western Wall, with the exception of bringing a Torah scroll.

The Western Wall is one of the few remnants of the ancient retaining wall that held up an artificial plateau on which a refurbished Second Temple stood during the reign of King Herod the Great. The Temple and much of the wall were later destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

For Jews, who are forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount by Israeli regulations, the Western Wall is the prayer site closest to the ancient site of the Holy of Holies inside the destroyed Temple. It is considered the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray.

Hebrew media reports said the government aims to quickly advance the bill and have it pass a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum, due to a looming High Court discussion in which the state will have to submit its response to petitions demanding that it formally recognize the egalitarian section or allow mixed-gender prayer at the main plaza.

Unnamed Shas officials were quoted by the Walla news site as saying that if the bill passes a Knesset vote before the February 28 discussion, the state will be able to tell the court that the matter is being dealt with via legislation, making judicial intervention unnecessary.

With the proposal facing immediate public backlash, Shas had attempted damage control, with an unnamed official saying earlier that legislation would be watered down to remove the fine and prison term.

News of the bill drew a torrent of criticism Thursday from opposition figures, liberal rights groups and others.

Women of the Wall called it an “outrage” and vowed to continue to pray in accordance with its customs, as it has done for almost 30 years.

“This is a time of emergency for everyone to whom a Jewish and democratic Israel is important, for everyone who views it as important to preserve the Western Wall as the home of the entire Jewish people,” the group said.

“A complete subordination of the site to the Chief Rabbinate is in complete contradiction to the existing situation and critically harms freedom of worship, especially in the women’s section,” it added. “The implication of the law is that for the first time, women will be prevented by law from praying according to their customs and anyone who doesn’t accept the authority of the Rabbinate will simply become a criminal.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said the legislation “means one thing: The Western Wall no longer belongs to everybody. The extremist government is continuing to tear the Nation of Israel apart. They can’t decide for us who is less Jewish or more Jewish.”

He added: “If this legislation passes, Israel will no longer be a free country. Rather than a symbol of unity, the Western Wall will become a symbol of the oppression of women, discrimination against secular people, and the dismantling of our alliance with world Jewry.”

Many opposition figures echoed that sentiment, including the previous Diaspora affairs minister Nachman Shai, who tweeted that the bill “is a formula for utterly disrupting our relationship with the Diaspora. Go for it, why not. You don’t care about them anyway.”

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar at his office in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even some coalition figures criticized the proposal. Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar said the Western Wall “belongs to the entire Nation of Israel and is sacred to all Jews, and there is no need for laws to preserve the site’s sanctity. Preserving the status quo [on religion and state] is critical to safeguarding the nation’s unity.”

Hiddush, a nonprofit advocating for religious freedom and equality, said the proposal should be titled “Shas versus the Jewish people” and that “in a normal time, Netanyahu would have made sure to take it off the agenda.

“But in these times, when his government depends on fulfilling the outlandish dreams of the ultra-Orthodox, the ministerial committee will probably approve the demand on Sunday and put Israel into another whirlwind in its relationship with Diaspora Jewry,” said Hiddush director Uri Regev.

The Reform Movement called the bill “an absolute shame,” saying the Western Wall “can’t be managed as if it’s a Haredi synagogue.”

“It seems like the government of Israel has forgotten that the State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish nation,” it said. “Instead of implementing the Western Wall compromise, which was a proportionate and acceptable solution and was approved by Netanyahu’s government in 2016, the current government is encouraging thuggery, polarization and violence and advancing an extreme policy.”

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a religious Zionist organization, said the legislation would “only cause harm and coercion in the forms of prayer at the Western Wall, which should be a home to every Jew, regardless of their form of prayer.” The group said the proposal was “creating a provocation that inflames the discourse and distances people from Torah and from their Jewish identity.”

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