'We did not return to our most sacred site to disgrace it'

Citing her conscience, Regev seeks to block Western Wall egalitarian section

PM removes culture minister from committee on pluralistic pavilion after she says she cannot approve construction; until recently, she backed the plan

Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev on Wednesday announced that she would not approve work on the long-delayed pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, citing her conscience and “Jewish tradition.”

Regev heads a committee overseeing work on the egalitarian pavilion.

As a result, Regev said in a radio interview Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be taking authority over the matter into his own hands in order to advance the work.

Regev wrote on Facebook that she could not in good conscience agree to mixed-gender prayer at the Wall.

“In the past months I have been torn,” she said. “My conscience would not let me rest. I could not approve the Western Wall plan in a manner that would upset the status quo. The Reform Movement’s demand to turn the Wall into a place where men and women pray together is unacceptable to me or to Jewish tradition.

“We did not return to our most sacred site in order to disgrace it,” she added.

Regev’s position represents a volte face: In 2016, she voted in favor of the Western Wall compromise agreement, subsequently frozen by Netanyahu, which provided for the pluralistic prayer area to be overseen by a committee including representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement, attorney Yizhar Hess, accused Regev of caving in to special interest groups and decried her “humiliation of Jews for their Judaism.”

“Who are you, Minister Regev, to tell the majority of the Jewish people, who pray without a mechitza [gender barrier] that their prayers are a disgrace,” Hess said Thursday.

The Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer area is currently on several levels, with a small platform that touches the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Regev’s current sentiments are also in direct contrast to those stated by her in Facebook posts in October 2013. Then, in response to police clashes with feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, Regev wrote, “As chairman of the committee responsible for allowing every citizen to pray in the place that is holy to him, I will continue to fight for the preparation of the Robinson’s Arch area for mixed prayer… I spoke with the Western Wall rabbi, and we will soon advance the issue of the Women of the Wall.”

A few months later in May 2013, Regev reported on Facebook that the Women of the Wall were no longer able to pray “according to their custom” in the mainstream Western Wall prayer pavilion. “I call for not turning the Wall into a site of demonstrations and maintaining the unity and sanctity of the place… The Robinson’s Arch solution must be accelerated in the coming days in order to prepare the designated area in a very short period of time.”

Regev spoke in similar vein in the Knesset that year, and also complained that the existing separate women’s prayer area at the wall was too small, and declaring that “women should not have to hide… Women and men have the same right to pray.”

Outgoing Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky also denounced the minister Thursday, saying “Miri Regev’s conscience is her personal business, but the change in her public position…is very regrettable.”

He expressed hope that Netanyahu would advance construction “as he has repeatedly promised the Jewish people in Israel and abroad.”

As seen in this April 2018 image, a small archaeological project overseen by the Israel Antiquities Authority currently being conducted in the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer section near the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

The original decision to build the pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016,  when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, it provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance shared with the Orthodox gender-segregated prayer plaza, and the establishment of a board of pluralistic Jewry to oversee the mixed-gender area.

But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu froze the compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.

Archaeological checks close to the platform began in February 2018 by the Israel Antiquities Authority, who is tasked by the government with overseeing new construction. But bureaucratic hurdles remain in the building process, which has been overseen by Regev.

Although back in 2016 the initial plan was warmly embraced by liberal and Diaspora Jewry, it was immediately met with controversy as Israeli ultra-Orthodox politicians stepped into the fray and vowed to stop it.

The pluralist section, shaded in blue, will double in size to nearly 10,000 square feet. The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 square feet. The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

As a result, Diaspora Jewry took up the cause of the pluralistic platform, which has become a point of increased friction. The ongoing saga quickly reached the High Court, which has since held countless hearings on the matter.

A remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Western Wall has been honored by Jews for thousands of years. It is the holiest place where Jews can pray because of its proximity to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism, which is administered by the Muslim Waqf and houses Islam’s third-holiest site, al-Aqsa mosque, and the Dome of the Rock.

The pluralistic pavilion is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park in 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 Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

If completed, the new permanent pavilion will greatly enlarge the modest prayer deck which has served liberal Jewry since 2000. Likewise it will replace the larger temporary bleacher-like platform that was put up ahead of the High Holy Days in 2013.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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