PM set to approve construction of Western Wall egalitarian prayer space – report
Jerusalem chief rabbi: Mixed prayer forbidden all along Wall

PM set to approve construction of Western Wall egalitarian prayer space – report

Netanyahu on Sunday to convene committee tasked with building pavilion for pluralistic worship near Robinson’s Arch

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during mixed men and women's prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during mixed men and women's prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to convene on Sunday a special committee in order to approve the construction of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the Walla news site reported Thursday.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was appointed by the Knesset to head the committee after Culture Minister Miri Regev said she was unable to approve the work, citing her conscience and “Jewish tradition,” and stepped down as committee chair.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was appointed to replace Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on the committee.

In response to the reports, Jerusalem’s Sephardic chief rabbi issued a ruling Thursday that it is forbidden to hold mixed prayer anywhere along the length of the Western Wall.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the current, temporary, pluralistc Western Wall prayer area, on June 14, 2016. Amar opposes the pluralistic prayer area. (Screen capture: Ynet)

“I repeat the well-known ruling, that the entire Western Wall along its entire length is a holy place, and all the laws of a synagogue and a house of study apply,” said Shlomo Amar, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

“No person has permission to trample a holy site, not through transgressing Shabbat or festivals and not with men and women praying together.”

Earlier this week Netanyahu tried to find 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.”

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)

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.

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.

The Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer area is currently on several levels, with a small platform that touches the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

“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.

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, 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, and the holiest place in Judaism. The site 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.

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