Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday accused his political opponents of attempting to politicize access to the Western Wall, a week after scuffles between ultra-Orthodox Jews and a Jewish women’s group at the Jerusalem holy site.
Opposition lawmakers, including Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and members of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ, had endorsed the demonstration against a monthly prayer gathering led by progressive supporters of pluralistic worship and gender equality. Despite ideological Haredi opposition to non-Orthodox services at the shrine, Bennett suggested the issue was being astroturfed to harm his coalition.
“The Western Wall is being used for an orchestrated political campaign, for which a lot of money has been raised, with the aim of scorning the government,” wrote Bennett in a Facebook post, warning there would be “huge” fallout from the fight.
The premier appeared to be referring to a campaign by the ultra-nationalist Liba Yehudit group, which has raised over NIS 700,000 ($225,000) to combat the pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. In its campaign, the right-wing group warned the Bennett-led government would “divide” the Western Wall, a reference to enabling non-Orthodox prayer.
A column in the Haaretz broadsheet Friday claimed that ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Aryeh Deri is behind the campaign, in an effort to destabilize the government, without attributing the information to a source.
Deri had publicly called on protesters to join last week’s demonstration “so that heaven forbid this holy place is not desecrated,” and Netanyahu amplified the call by retweeting it.
“Even in days of serious controversy, we must maintain islands of sanctity,” said Bennett. “Things that are untouchable. If there’s a problem, you deal with it through dialogue. You don’t conduct [internal] surveys and decide to throw your weight behind a divisive campaign over the Western Wall.”
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 5 to protest against the long-running campaign for gender equality at the site, with minor scuffles and one person arrested.
The Women of the Wall group, which has campaigned for decades for equality of worship at the Western Wall, holds a prayer service there each Rosh Hodesh, which marks the beginning of the Hebrew month. The group’s activities — such as women praying with a Torah scroll — have long been opposed by ultra-Orthodox politicians, and their prayers are regularly disrupted by heckling and protests.
Ahead of the November 5 service, clashes broke out between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police before the Women of the Wall arrived at the holy site. Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman was at one point removed from the Western Wall plaza after attempting to bring in a small Torah scroll. At least one arrest was made during scuffles between activists and protesters, but the Western Wall rabbi said that more intense violence was successfully avoided.
The protest came as the new government advanced reforms weakening the ultra-Orthodox grip over religious affairs in the country, including an overhaul of the kashrut industry. The legislation angered Haredi lawmakers, who followed Netanyahu into the opposition after Bennett formed a power-sharing government with Yair Lapid, leader of the secularist Yesh Atid party.
The ultra-Orthodox are opposed to any changes at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, where men and women pray in separate areas. During Netanyahu’s administration Haredi lawmakers had used their position in his coalition to freeze a deal, backed by Bennett, that would have given progressive streams of Judaism dedicated space at the shrine and more say over its administration.
The move infuriated adherents of more liberal strains of Judaism to which most Jews in North America adhere. The fate of the holy site has been a major point of friction between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, in Israel and the United States.
In August, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai told The Times of Israel that reviving the agreement is on the cabinet’s agenda and enjoys wide backing in the coalition, including by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Last Friday, Shai reiterated his belief that the plan must be brought back to the forefront. “The events of today next to the Western Wall strengthened my belief that we must hurry in renewing the Western Wall compromise plan,” Shai tweeted.
The original plan includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council including representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government officials that would be in charge of overseeing the site.
The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current mainstream Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.
In Israel, ultra-Orthodox rabbis tightly control Jewish practices including weddings, divorces and burials, viewing it as their responsibility to preserve traditions that have endured centuries of persecution and assimilation. They continually resist calls for reforms from liberals, often deeming them second-class Jews who ordain women and members of the LGBTQ community and are overly accepting towards converts and interfaith marriages.