Lawmakers submit bill to outlaw mixed prayer at Western Wall

Worshipers who engage in non-Orthodox prayer at the holy site could receive up to 6 months in jail or NIS 10,000 fine

Illustrative: Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Shas party submitted a bill on Sunday that would make it illegal to hold pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall plaza.

The proposed law would impose penalties of six months’ imprisonment or a fine of NIS 10,000 ($2,600) on those who hold mixed-gender services or women’s Torah readings, and women who don a prayer shawl or phylacteries.

In its description of the bill, the ultra-Orthodox party said it was meant to prevent actions, including “religious ceremonies,” that “do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation that prays there.”

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.

Should it pass into law, it would effectively end the negotiated agreement passed by the cabinet almost a year ago that approved the construction of 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.

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 and has gained support not only from members of his own party and United Torah Judaism, the other ultra-Orthodox party, but also from MKs Oren Hazan, David Amsalem and Miki Zohar of Likud, and Bezalel Smotrich, Moti Yogev and Nissim Smoliansky of the Jewish Home party, according to a report in Haaretz.

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 last week 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 last week that 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 ultra-Orthodox 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 , which has campaigned for egalitarian prayer to be permitted there.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed