Egalitarian Western Wall plaza construction delayed as minister quits committee

David Azoulay of ultra-Orthodox party Shas writes to Netanyahu that he can’t ‘act against my beliefs’; joins two other ministers who resigned last week

Shas MK David Azoulay during a Knesset committee meeting. February 13, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Shas MK David Azoulay during a Knesset committee meeting. February 13, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The construction of a permanent egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall in Jerusalem suffered a further delay on Sunday, as an ultra-Orthodox member of the committee formed to consider the issue quit — the third minister to do so in a week.

Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party announced his resignation from the committee in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he charged that the decision to build the permanent plaza had already been made by the premier ahead of a committee meeting set for Sunday.

As a result, the committee isn’t expected to convene until the appointment of a replacement for Azoulay, and the construction works will be delayed, Hebrew-language media reported.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was appointed by the Knesset to head the committee after Culture Minister Miri Regev said she was unable to approve the work, citing her conscience and “Jewish tradition,” and stepped down as committee chair.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was appointed to replace Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who similarly resigned from the committee citing ideological reasons.

The platform for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (courtesy)

Azoulay said those quick replacements led him to the conclusion that the decision to approve the move had already been made by Netanyahu.

“Essentially, a decision was made even before the committee met and before relevant considerations were discussed,” Azoulay wrote.

“It is nothing but lip service,” he added, saying he wasn’t willing to “act against my own beliefs and be a partner in such a step.”

“In these unfortunate circumstances, I ask to halt my membership in the committee,” he concluded.

Jerusalem’s Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar last week called on Azoulay to quit the committee in order to “take action for the relic of our Temple” and “not be part of an attempt to give the Reform [Jews] part of the Kotel.”

Amar, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, issued a ruling Thursday forbidding the holding of mixed prayer services anywhere along the length of the Western Wall.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the current, temporary, pluralistc Western Wall prayer area, on June 14, 2016. Amar opposes the pluralistic prayer area. (Screen capture: Ynet)

“I repeat the well-known ruling, that the entire Western Wall along its entire length is a holy place, and all the laws of a synagogue and a house of study apply,” he said.

“No person has permission to trample a holy site, not through transgressing Shabbat or festivals and not with men and women praying together.”

Earlier last week Netanyahu tried to find a volunteer to head the committee in Regev’s stead but was met with silence, a participant in the meeting told The Times of Israel.

In response, a rankled Netanyahu said: “I will deal with the Western Wall agreement myself.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

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 feminist prayer group 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 at the site of a currently existing temporary one. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance to the area to be 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, which is tasked by the government with overseeing new construction. But bureaucratic hurdles remain in the building process.

In a possible explanation for Likud ministers’ reluctance to take up the issue, some 100 Likud activists published a letter last week backing Regev’s rejection of the committee.

“We support the bold decision of Culture Minister Miri Regev to protect the sanctity of the Western Wall and to not allow the creation of a Reform plaza next to it,” read the letter. “We stand with you in the struggle for the Western Wall,” they told Regev.

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)

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, who initially allowed the proposal to advance, responded to grassroots pressure in their communities to step in and work to prevent its implementation.

As a result, several Diaspora Jewish organizations 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 multiple 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, and the holiest place in Judaism. The site is administered by the Muslim Waqf and houses Islam’s third-holiest site, the 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 Temple Mount.

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

Raoul Wootliff and Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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