Ministers pass Western Wall prayer hot potato to Netanyahu

Ministers pass Western Wall prayer hot potato to Netanyahu

Ayelet Shaked pulls out of committee on pluralistic pavilion days after Miri Regev slammed plan as a 'disgrace' to holy site

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

The long-delayed pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem’s Western Wall appeared in jeopardy Sunday when Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked became the second minister in less than a week to pull out of a committee tasked with implementing the proposal, and other Likud ministers declined to fill the vacant spots.

After 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 would step down as the committee chair, Shaked told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that she, too, would also be leaving the ministerial task force, he told Likud ministers Sunday morning.

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.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, September 3, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Later, speaking at the full cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, urged Netanyahu to reject the plan and consult with Israel’s chief rabbinate on an alternative, Kan news reported.

That left Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, also a member of Shas and an opponent of the pluralistic prayer area (who once said Reform Jews aren’t Jewish), as the only remaining minister on the committee.

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, the Likud Central Committee, a powerful decision-making body made up of party 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 disparaging letter signed by over 100 local Likud leaders.

“We stand on your right-hand side in the struggle for the Western Wall,” they said, addressing Regev.

Culture Minister Miri Regev arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 1, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

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 stepped into the fray and vowed to stop it.

The pluralist section, shaded in blue, will double in size to nearly 10,000 square feet. The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 square feet. The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

As a result, Diaspora Jewry 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 Jewry since 2000. Likewise it will replace the larger temporary bleacher-like platform that was put up ahead of the High Holy Days in 2013.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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