The Knesset in the early hours of Tuesday morning voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head a committee tasked to implement the construction of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, replacing Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was appointed to replace Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on the committee.
Forty-eight lawmakers voted in favor of the move with only MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home party voting against the proposal.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev announced last Wednesday that she could not approve work on the prayer pavilion, citing her conscience and “Jewish tradition,” and said she would step down as the committee chair.
On Sunday Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked became the second minister in less than a week to pull out of the committee tasked with implementing the proposal.
Speaking at their weekly parley, Netanyahu asked his party’s ministers for a volunteer to head the committee in Regev`s stead but was met with silence, a participant in the meeting told The Times of Israel.
In response, 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 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.
Archaeological checks close to the platform began in February 2018 by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is tasked by the government with overseeing new construction. But bureaucratic hurdles remain in the building process, which had been overseen by Regev, the culture minister.
In a possible explanation for Likud ministers’ reluctance to take up the issue, some 100 Likud activists published a letter on Sunday backing Regev’s rejection of the committee.
“We support the bold decision of Culture Minister Miri Regev to protect the sanctity of the Western Wall and to not allow the creation of a Reform plaza next to it,” read the letter. “We stand with you in the struggle for the Western Wall,” they told Regev.
On Wednesday, Regev wrote on Facebook that she could not in good conscience agree to mixed-gender prayer at the Wall.
“In the past months I have been torn,” she said. “My conscience would not let me rest. I could not approve the Western Wall plan in a manner that would upset the status quo. The Reform Movement’s demand to turn the Wall into a place where men and women pray together is unacceptable to me or to Jewish tradition. We did not return to our most sacred site in order to disgrace it,” she added.
Regev’s sentiments last week were also in direct contrast to those stated by her in Facebook posts in October 2013. Then, in response to police clashes with Women of the Wall, Regev wrote, “As chairwoman of the committee responsible for allowing every citizen to pray in the place that is holy to him, I will continue to fight for the preparation of the Robinson’s Arch area for mixed prayer… I spoke with the Western Wall rabbi, and we will soon advance the issue of the Women of the Wall.”
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, the holiest place in Judaism, which 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 Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
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.