Cabinet set to vote on mixed-gender area at Western Wall

Cabinet set to vote on mixed-gender area at Western Wall

Orthodox politicians come out against plan to establish an egalitarian prayer plaza at Jerusalem holy site

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of women dancing with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of women dancing with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, April 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli ministers were set to vote Sunday on the establishment of an egalitarian area at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews can worship in mixed-gender services.

Called Ezrat Yisrael, the new area would be located in the plaza’s southernmost corner underneath Robinson’s Arch, separate from the Wall’s main plaza.

The plan is opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, who reportedly intend to try to block funding for it.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party will not allow his ministry to participate in funding the project, which is slated to cost some $10 million, Haaretz reported Sunday. Instead, the government has sought to fund the plan through the Prime Minister’s Office, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Tourism Ministry.

Nevertheless, the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee intends to block the funding, a source familiar with the plan told JTA. MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party intends to use his committee post to deny the cash needed to fund the expansion, said the source, who requested anonymity.

The Prime Minister’s Office is thus seeking other sources of funding, including from the Jerusalem municipality, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

For nearly three years, the ultra-Orthodox foundation that oversees the operations at the Western Wall and the Women of the Wall group, an organization that seeks to promote women’s prayer rights at the holy site, have clashed over the later’s efforts to make the site more inclusive.

Haaretz reported last week that officials want to come to an agreement on the issue before Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit assumes his new position of attorney general in February.

According to the agreement reached between the two parties, Ezrat Yisrael will be overseen by the government, not the ultra-Orthodox foundation.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) said Sunday that they would vote against the initiative in the cabinet, with Deri adding that the State of Israel had always conducted itself according to the principles of Orthodox Judaism.

“This whole problem of Reform and Conservatives never existed in the State of Israel, and I have no interest in letting [them] in now,” Deri said ahead of the cabinet meeting. “There’s no need for compromise.”

Joining the ultra-Orthodox politicians in opposition to the new plaza on Sunday was Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party. In a statement, he called the new plaza “divisive” and a “slippery slope” and said the initiative was “superfluous and harmful to Jewish tradition.

“Reform [Jews] in Israel and especially abroad are purposely targeting the values we hold dear, and letting them into the Western Wall will harm the citizens of Israel who uphold [Jewish] tradition,” said Ariel, a staunch supporter of Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount.

In November last year, Netanyahu pledged to find a solution for women wishing to read from the Torah at the Western Wall, while upholding the status quo that bans them from doing so.

Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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