Herzog talks Western Wall mixed-gender prayer plaza with Reform, Conservative groups

President condemns ‘all manifestations of physical and verbal violence’ amid recent tensions over planned egalitarian area at holy site

President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements at his office in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (GPO)
President Isaac Herzog meets with representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements at his office in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (GPO)

President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday met with representatives of Reform and Conservative Jewish groups, as well as the Women of the Wall, to discuss the future of the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

According to the President’s Office, Herzog “heard the opinions and suggestions of the different movements, and reiterated that he strives to calm the tensions in order to prevent senseless hatred” at the holy site.

The president condemned “all manifestations of physical and verbal violence,” following recent attempts by ultra-Orthodox protesters to block Women of the Wall from holding monthly prayers at the Western Wall.

He also said the Western Wall “is a holy site to which the whole Jewish people look to, in Israel and around the world, and that there is a need for responsibility, restraint and efforts to find ways for all parts of our nation, in Israel and the Diaspora, to move forward peacefully.”

Coalition MKs Gilad Kariv of the Labor party and Alon Tal of Blue and White both attended the meeting along with other officials.

Kariv, a Reform rabbi and the former head of Israel’s Reform Movement, said he is “looking forward to implementing the Western Wall plan, which will allow every Jew in Israel and in the Diaspora to pray at the site.”

He said the groups “will not fall captive to Netanyahu” and will move forward with the plan.

Screen capture from video of a Torah scroll brought by Labor MK Gilad Kariv to the Western Wall for use in a women’s prayer group is held aloft, April, 14, 2021. (Israel Hayom)

In 2016, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved a compromise deal to create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing an oversight role, after years of negotiations between Israel and Diaspora leaders. But a year later, the then-prime minister capitulated to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and indefinitely froze the deal.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has not publicly endorsed the deal, but members of his government have indicated that a compromise is in the works.

Over the weekend, however, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana appeared to drop his support for a 2016 compromise deal to build the mixed-gender plaza for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Kahana said that the “vast majority” of Jews in Israel are Orthodox and it would therefore not be right to give control of part of the Western Wall to minority movements.

“I think we must end the disagreements surrounding the Western Wall, without giving over control of any kind to denominations that represent a very small minority of Jews,” said Kahana, a member of Bennett’s Yamina party.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The original plan includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council including representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government officials that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into 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.

In an interview with The Times of Israel last month, Kahana, who is Orthodox and who has advanced a series of far-reaching religious reforms on kashrut, endorsed the 2016 framework. “We need to look again at [reviving] that arrangement, which was widely agreed upon, and stop all these conflicts,” he said.

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