Netanyahu shares call to block progressive women’s prayer group at Western Wall

Ex-premier retweets post from ultra-Orthodox ally Deri urging supporters to prevent Jerusalem holy site from being ‘desecrated’ during monthly prayer service by Women of the Wall

Members of the Women of the Wall prayer group hold prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Members of the Women of the Wall prayer group hold prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday shared a Twitter post from a close political ally urging his supporters to block a monthly prayer service held by a progressive Jewish group at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Women of the Wall, which advocates for pluralistic prayer, holds prayers at the holy site each Rosh Hodesh, marking the beginning of the month on the Hebrew calendar.

The group’s activities — such as women praying with a Torah scroll — have long been opposed by ultra-Orthodox politicians, and their prayers are regularly disrupted by heckling and protests.

“Tomorrow, Friday, Rosh Hodesh Kislev, at 7 a.m., I and dozens of members of Knesset will arrive to pray at the Western Wall,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri wrote in the tweet shared by Netanyahu. “I call on anyone who believes in the sanctity of the wall to come and pray with us, so that God forbid this holy place will not be desecrated.”

Shas also issued a flyer calling on the ultra-Orthodox party’s supporters to meet at the Western Wall on Friday morning to protest against “the intention of Reform Jews and Women of the Wall, with the support of the government and the coalition, to desecrate the holiness of the Western Wall.”

Along with Deri and Shas MKs, lawmakers from other factions in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc — which includes his Likud party, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and far-right Religious Zionism — also indicated they would join the protest Friday.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Shas leader Aryeh Deri during a vote in the Knesset on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

UTJ leader Moshe Gafni said he and the other MKs would seek “to stop the provocateur Gilad Kariv from harming the remnants of our Temple,” referring to a lawmaker in the coalition’s Labor party.

Kariv, the first reform rabbi to serve in the Knesset, has used his parliamentary immunity to bring a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall for Rosh Hodesh services.

“The hypocritical Netanyahu retweeted Aryeh Deri’s call to arrive at the Western Wall in the morning to prevent ‘its desecration’ by Women of the Wall,” Kariv tweeted Thursday.

The Labor MK said he would “reveal everything that Netanyahu told us about the conduct of the ultra-Orthodox establishment at the Western Wall and in general,” without giving further details.

Yizhar Hess, the former executive director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism Movement in Israel, said he was “astounded” that Netanyahu shared Deri’s tweet.

“I would like to remind Mr. Netanyahu of the many meetings we held… in most of which he pleaded with us to sign the Western Wall compromise deal,” Hess said in a statement. “I also remember well the words Netanyahu used publicly and behind closed doors about his deep commitment that prayer for all streams of Judaism be allowed at the Western Wall and that the Western Wall belongs to everyone.”

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site according to traditional Orthodox standards, sent a letter Thursday to the Jerusalem police chief saying “it does not take any responsibility for maintaining public order” there during the morning prayers.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, dozens of officers were expected to reinforce police guarding the Western Wall on Friday.

Shas and UTJ also object to proposals to revive the so-called Western Wall compromise to create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the site.

The agreement was approved by Netanyahu’s government in 2016 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.

Segregated-gender Orthodox prayer in the Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, July 13, 2018. (Eric Woodward)

In August, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Times of Israel that reviving the agreement is on the cabinet’s agenda and enjoys wide backing in the coalition, including by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

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.

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