Law would 'utterly disrupt our relationship with Diaspora'

Coalition bill would ban mixed prayer anywhere at Western Wall, nix egalitarian plaza

Legislation sets jail term for mixed-gender prayer, immodest clothing, criminalizes Women of Wall activity; amid outrage, PM says bill ‘won’t come up right now,’ status quo to stay

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

A boy reads from the Torah as part of his barmitzvah at the Western Wall's egalitarian section in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Egalitarian section/Facebook)
A boy reads from the Torah as part of his barmitzvah at the Western Wall's egalitarian section in Jerusalem on November 17, 2022. (Egalitarian section/Facebook)

The government caused outrage Thursday after news broke that it was expediting a bill to impose sweeping new restrictions on freedom of worship at the Western Wall, banning egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer at the section of the holy site where it is now allowed, criminalizing the activity of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, and banning visitors from wearing attire deemed immodest.

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

A few hours after news broke that the bill had been added to Sunday’s agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s Sunday meeting — drawing fierce and widespread condemnation — Likud said it had removed it from the agenda.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed in a statement that the status quo at the Western Wall “will be maintained.” He said he had spoken with coalition chiefs and they agreed the bill “won’t come up right now.”

He added: “And if it does come up, it won’t include the clauses criminalizing [immodest] clothing or musical instruments… which are unacceptable to everyone.”

The bill, which had been mentioned in coalition agreements in general terms, was added at the last moment to the committee’s agenda, 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 to include the bill in the committee’s Sunday agenda, a move that apparently hadn’t been coordinated with it. The report said the move highlights the “complex relationship” between Deri and Netanyahu.

The bill, filed by Shas MK Uriel Buso, would shut down the pluralistic prayer area and criminalize mixed-gender prayer anywhere at the Western Wall.

It stipulates that it would become 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.

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

Women of the Wall dance with a Torah Scroll during a Rosh Hodesh service in the Western Wall plaza in 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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, 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.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a Shas party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

The development 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.”

Illustrative: Jews gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to pray for rain, on December 28, 2017. (Flash90)

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.”

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.”

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

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.”

Following the outcry, Channel 12 news cited a senior Shas party official saying the clauses setting the prison term and fine would be removed from the proposal soon.

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