Egalitarian Western Wall plaza said to get swift approval through legal loophole

Municipality, working with PM’s office, reportedly pushes plans through using regulation allowing swift construction for accessibility purposes

A view from the entrance of the Robinson's Arch prayer platforms, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
A view from the entrance of the Robinson's Arch prayer platforms, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Jerusalem’s municipality has received approval for the long-delayed expansion of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Haaretz reported Sunday, after the contentious issue was fast-tracked through the use of a legal loophole.

Plans to build a permanent egalitarian prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch area south of the main plaza have long been hampered by bureaucratic hurdles and the political minefield of religious tensions at the site.

But according to the report, the platform has now been given a final okay by municipal officials with the close involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Though plans for construction would have normally required many more months of deliberations at various planning committees, these have been sidestepped through a municipal regulation allowing swift work in building accessible infrastructure for handicapped persons, the report said.

Such construction can go ahead after receiving the approval of the municipal engineer alone.

A family celebrates a bar mitzva at the small egalitarian prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch, July 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Following the Haaretz report, Dr. Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement, welcomed the decision to expand the site but expressed reservations over the manner in which it was approved.

“I am pleased with the bottom line that in the end Ezrat Israel will be expanded, as there are now quite a few days a year when it is no longer possible to reserve a place for a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony,” said Hess in a statement, using the prayer platform’s formal name.

“However, this is far from what was agreed upon in the Western Wall deal and I must say I would be more content if this was done more formally. This special permission gives us a bit of a feeling of thieves in the night,” he added.

The attorney general’s office is said to have opposed using the loophole for such a major project, but the city’s legal counsel okayed the move.

The government committee set up to oversee the issue had experienced repeated setbacks after three ministers resigned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was approved 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.

Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party also left some time later, claiming the decision to approve the move had already been made by Netanyahu and that the committee’s work was no more than lip service.

Netanyahu reportedly took the committee under his wing after failing to find a volunteer to head it at a cabinet meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on August 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Jim Hollander)

A participant in the meeting told The Times of Israel a rankled Netanyahu said: “I will deal with the Western Wall agreement myself.”

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, facing intense ultra-Orthodox pressure, 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.

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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