It’s a blazing Saturday in mid-August as members of an Evangelical Christian family from Kentucky make their way toward the Western Wall. On this visit to the holy site, their third, they’ve decided to skip the segregated plaza in favor of the more intimate Robinson’s Arch, because Mom has insisted they pray “as a family.”
Following their prayers, the family sits down and sets up a picnic as the 10-year-old son runs around wildly with the family dog, who has accompanied them on their trip. Mom, moved by the experience, whips out the guitar she’s insisted on carrying everywhere and begins to sing. Rolling her eyes, the family’s teenage daughter — dressed in a tank top and shorts on this scorching summer day — pulls out her cellphone to craft the perfect selfie. Meanwhile, Dad, fed up with just a little too much family time, meanders over to the general plaza. Tucked away in the men’s section, far from his wife’s eyes, he surreptitiously pulls out a cigarette and lights up, savoring the brief respite.
We hope you’re enjoying your family vacation, fictional US visitors. Because, in a world in which proposed legislation spearheaded by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party becomes law, you would all be going to prison.
Unless, that is, you can cough up the NIS 70,000 in fines (approx. $18,500) for the seven offenses you’ve committed.
Lawmakers from Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as Likud’s Oren Hazan, Dudi Amsalem and Miki Zohar and Jewish Home’s Betzalel Smotrich, Moti Yogev, and Nissan Slomianksy, have endorsed the proposed legislation, officially lodged on Sunday, that would anchor Orthodox practice in law throughout the entire Western Wall vicinity.
The proposal would impose a ban on a slew of practices, including mixed-gender prayer, at Robinson’s Arch, where the government has pledged to build a prayer plaza for Reform and Conservative Jews. The construction of the egalitarian plaza has been put on ice since it was announced in January, reportedly due to pressure from the Haredi political parties.
“Those who know me know that I am against imposing religious laws,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who is the leader of the Shas party, said last Tuesday. “I once said that if there was a law in Israel for circumcision, we would see many fewer Jews performing the commandment.” At the same time, addressing the Western Wall proposed law, he added: “You must know that any recognition or compromise with the Reform means a recognition of their way as a ‘stream in Judaism.’ Our struggle against them is uncompromising. They bring assimilation and destruction.”
Despite the long line-up of coalition MKs endorsing the bill and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s need to placate his coalition partners, the legislation is unlikely to make headway, as stirrings of opposition emerge from the coalition Kulanu party. Moreover, the Haredi parties, in their coalition agreements, have signed on a provision that says the coalition will torpedo any legislation that changes the existing religious status quo.
While debates will likely rage over whether this is a change in the status quo, since Orthodox practice largely governs the site, penalizing men and women praying together at Robinson’s Arch would undoubtedly mark a departure from the existing arrangements.
What the law says
The proposal defines the “Western Wall” as the area from its southernmost tip to Dung Gate, “including Robinson’s Arch,” and any structure — above and below ground — that falls within this demarcation.
The religious “local custom” permitted at the site will be dictated by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, it stipulates.
Throughout this space, the following behavior will be met with six months’ imprisonment or a NIS 10,000 fine:
• Mixed-gender prayer services, or attempts by men or women to cross the partition dividing the sexes in the plaza. Eating, drinking, or sleeping in areas that are not designated for these actions.
• Any desecration of Shabbat, based on Orthodox practice (the legislation does not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish visitors in this respect or any other). In addition, “holding a ceremony, including a religious ceremony, that is not based on local practice, and which offends the community of worshipers at the site.”
• Wearing “clothing that is not appropriate for the holiness of the site” — though specifics are not provided — and offering any religious service without the explicit permission of the authorities governing the Western Wall.
• Setting up any sort of shops or stalls in the area or distributing fliers or promotional content. Playing musical instruments and singing without the permission of the authorities, making a speech or declaration of any kind, smoking in the existing Western Wall plaza, animal slaughter or bringing animals into the area without approval.
• Within the women’s section in the existing plaza, “any ceremony that includes taking out a Torah scroll, reading from it, blowing a shofar, wearing a tallit or tefillin.”
Moreover, the legislation states that professional photographers will need permission to take photos at the site, though it does not appear to be a punishable offense. And it enshrines the partition separating men and women worshipers in law.
The lawmakers behind the bill have described it as an effort to “regulate” the site, comparing it to the Jewish Home’s ongoing effort to legalize 4,000 housing units in outposts and settlement construction built on privately owned Palestinian land as part of its “Regulation Bill.”
“We saw last month, when a coalition faction fights for its principles until the end — it is successful,” Deri told the Kikar HaShabat website, referring to the Regulation Bill. “Is the fate of Amona more important that the fate of the Western Wall? The Western Wall hasn’t been regulated since it was liberated [in 1967, during the Six Day War].”
The Western Wall: The existing arrangements
Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, in the same manner as men, as it contravenes the “local custom” determined by the Wall’s chief rabbi. In 2003, the High Court of Justice upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin (phylacteries) or tallit, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall plaza. That same court decision demanded the government build an egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch.
In 2013, a Jerusalem court reinterpreted the High Court decision as a recommendation rather than a legal order, thus permitting women to don tefillin and prayer shawls at the Western Wall. That move was lauded by groups such as the Women of the Wall, who seek pluralistic prayer at the holy site. Since then, there have been periodic scuffles between Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers at the site, and some arrests of Women of the Wall activists for smuggling a Torah into the women’s section which is banned under the Western Wall guidelines.
In January, Netanyahu announced the mixed-gender section would be built at Robinson’s Arch in a decision lauded by world Jewry. But within days of its jubilant announcement, the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition and its implementation has been on ice ever since. In September, the High Court of Justice reportedly rebuked the government for the stalemate in building the new plaza.
While the construction of the site has been stalled and Netanyahu has asked Reform and Conservative Jews to keep silent on the issue, it is difficult to imagine that the prime minister, who approved the compromise less than a year ago, would now do a dramatic u-turn and ban mixed gender prayer altogether, thumbing his nose at the bulk of American Jewry.
“I hope that the prime minster will come out against this bill,” Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “I will press upon him my position. I mean, who understands the Diaspora-Israel relationship and the importance of American Jewish support better than him?”
“This bill makes a mockery of all the efforts made by recent governments to ensure that the Western Wall is a place that unites, rather than divides, the Jewish people,” said Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who negotiated the Robinson’s Arch compromise, in a statement. “This bill’s passage would have grave consequences for the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Based on the Prime Minister’s strong personal commitment to strengthening the Israel-Diaspora relationship, it is my fervent hope that this damaging bill will be summarily dismissed by a majority of the coalition and of the Knesset.”
In the event that the legislation goes ahead, Liberal groups will likely petition the High Court of Justice, which has in the past ruled that the government must support non-Orthodox prayer at the Arch.
The bill will also likely face opposition from within the coalition.
A Kulanu party spokesperson said the party had not yet formulated its stance on the bill, as it was only submitted to the Knesset several days ago. However, two prominent lawmakers from the party, Oren and MK Rachel Azaria, on Monday lashed out at the proposal as a “fatal blow to the relations between the State of Israel and Jewish communities abroad.” Oren said the issue had come up in the Kulanu faction on Monday, where he and Azaria outlined their opposition.
“We will not allow Knesset members to sacrifice the relationship between Israel and world Jewry in a caprice stemming from a desire to control the Western Wall and bar every Jewish man and woman from praying in accordance with their custom,” the two said in a joint statement, adding that it would be a “blatant violation of the status quo” at the site.
Moreover, in their binding coalition agreements, both Shas and United Torah Judaism have signed off on a clause that would see the coalition oppose any legislation that changes the religious status quo. This condition was likely sought by the Haredi parties, fearing the easing of restrictions on matters such as the Sabbath, conversions, and personal status. But it would also seemingly apply to attempts to impose fresh legal restrictions at the Western Wall.
“The status quo on matters of religion and state will be upheld as was customary in Israel for decades,” the agreements say. “No private legislation which changes the status quo on matters of religion and state will be advanced or approved with the exception of what is detailed in this agreement. [For] any legislation submitted in opposition to what is stated here, all the coalition factions will vote against it and coalition discipline will be enforced to remove it from the agenda in the Knesset committees and plenum.”
The Yisrael Beytenu coalition agreement also gives veto power to every coalition party on matters of religion and state, noting that no legislation on these issues will be advanced without the unanimous support of all parties. A Yisrael Beytenu spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment on the Western Wall proposal.
Raoul Wootlif and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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