Government bans gender-separation barriers at Western Wall egalitarian plaza

After series of disturbances, Prime Minister’s Office tells director of site to block anyone seeking to bring a ‘mehitza’ into prayer space

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)
A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a directive on Monday prohibiting bringing a mehitza, a gender separation barrier, into the egalitarian section of the Western Wall following serious disturbances at the site.

Extremist Orthodox activists have repeatedly disturbed services at the site, which is intended for non-Orthodox prayer, and announced on Tuesday in response to the ban that they would hold their own services with gender separation at the egalitarian section.

On Monday, head of the Budgets and Projects Department of the Prime Minister’s Office Drorit Steinmetz wrote to the director of the Company for the Development and Renovation of the Jewish Quarter, Herzl Ben Ari, instructing him to ensure anyone seeking to bring a mehitza to the site is blocked at the entrance.

The organization is responsible for the management and administration of the southern prayer section, while a steering committee comprising two officials from the Prime Minister’s Office along with Ben Ari coordinates between the organization and the government.

Steinmetz, who heads the steering committee, noted in her letter that orderlies from the organization should not use force to stop anyone seeking to bring in a mehitza, but should request assistance from the police in such circumstances.

The southern prayer area of the Western Wall is designated for mixed-gender prayer, but extremist Orthodox activists opposed to non-Orthodox prayer services at the site have frequently disturbed prayer services in the egalitarian section.

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

On several occasions this has included forcibly taking over the site, erecting gender-separating barriers and conducting Orthodox prayer services.

Last month such activists disrupted three bar and bat mitzvas, tore up a prayer book, blew whistles and cursed at the worshipers throughout their services.

On other occasions, Orthodox activists have brought in a mehitza and taken control of the prayer space.

The Reform Movement in Israel welcomed the ban but said the step would not prevent other forms of disturbance at the prayer site, and called for greater measures to ensure order.

“I call on the prime minister to turn the egalitarian section into a dignified public space that allows all Jews in Israel and from the Diaspora to pray in accordance with their customs,” said Reform Movement in Israel director Anna Kislanski.

The liberal religious-Zionist lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah praised the ban, saying it was a necessary step against “the violent struggle of hardline Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups against Jews who come to pray at the Western Wall.”

MK Avi Maoz, who represents the ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative Noam faction of the Religious Zionism party, denounced the ban as “violating Jewish law, Jewish tradition, and the law,” and said that Prime Minister Yair Lapid was “once again humiliating the holy things of the Jewish people.”

UTJ MK Uri Maklev (L) and Religious Zionism MK Avi Maoz attend a meeting of the Religious Services Committee at the Knesset on October 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Noam party’s Twitter account subsequently posted a tweet calling on the general public to join an Orthodox prayer service with gender separation at the egalitarian plaza on Tuesday evening.

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