Haredi lawmakers look to outlaw mixed prayer at Western Wall

Bill proposed by Shas would designate the holy site as subject to religious observance rules of Israel’s rabbinic courts, effectively forbidding non-Orthodox prayer

Liberal Jewish activists enter the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 (courtesy)
Liberal Jewish activists enter the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 (courtesy)

The Shas party said Monday it would propose a bill that would make it illegal to hold pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall plaza.

In the Haredi party’s description of the bill, it said it was meant to prevent actions, including “religious ceremonies,” that “do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation who pray there.”

Should it pass into law, it would effectively end the negotiated agreement passed by the cabinet almost a year ago that decided on an egalitarian prayer plaza alongside the Orthodox-controlled one at the holy site.

The compromise called for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in part of the Davidson Archaeological Park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a smaller, temporary prayer platform set up at the site.

Shas’s proposal would define the entire area as a holy site governed under the same definitions of religious practice and law set by Israel’s rabbinic courts and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Prayer services would thus be limited solely to state-approved Orthodox practice.

The proposed law would also penalize those who defy its strictures, including those who hold mixed-gender services, women’s Torah readings or include women donning a prayer shawl or phylacteries, with up to six months’ imprisonment or a fine of NIS 10,000.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, July 17, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, July 17, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Shas head Interior Minister Aryeh Deri drafted a proposal for the bill late last week and is currently attempting to gain support from coalition members to present it as a government-sponsored bill, the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat website reported.

The bill is almost certain to be opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who back the 2015 compromise, as well as religiously liberal ministers and lawmakers in the coalition, including in the Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu factions. As such, it stands little chance of making it into law.

Conservative Movement in Israel CEO Yizhar Hess called the proposal “madness.”

“We never imagined,” he said in a statement, “that this government would support such a post-Zionist act. This bill says to the vast majority of Jews in Israel and the world that they are not Jewish.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, said the proposed legislation was ultra-Orthodox incitement against Reform Jews. “It is terrifying to see that instead of condemning the death threats that the heads of the Reform Movement received in the past few days, the head of Shas continues to incite divisiveness and hate.”

Both Hess and Kariv called on Netanyahu to torpedo the bill, the Ynet news site reported.

In September, the High Court of Justice called on Netanyahu to implement the compromise agreement allowing for egalitarian services and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, noting that it had already passed as a cabinet decision.

When it was approved, the plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” by many diaspora leaders, but within days became the target of Haredi ire and threatened to cause tension in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition. Its implementation has been frozen ever since.

In March, Deri reportedly proclaimed that the Western Wall plan “is over.”

The deal was reached after three years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and then-outgoing cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, who currently serves as Israel’s attorney general. The negotiations included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, and the Women of the Wall activist group who have campaigned for egalitarian prayer to be permitted there.

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