A new government blueprint for construction of a permanent pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall was presented at a meeting on Monday at the Prime Minister’s Office, but was pilloried by some activists for failing to live up to a frozen 2016 government which would have brought it in line with the holy site’s main prayer plaza.
Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman represented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting in which the project’s architects presented the estimated NIS 18 million renovation plan to the heads of the Women of the Wall organization and Israel’s liberal Jewish movements.
Also in attendance was Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, who spearheaded the long-negotiated compromise that led to the 2016 government decision to construct the permanent platform. After intense political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, Netanyahu froze the decision in June 2017.
According to Women of the Wall spokesperson Elizabeth Kirshner, it was explained at Monday’s meeting that Netanyahu would now only “partially freeze” the 2016 government decision to implement sweeping changes at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Western Wall.
Sharansky and the PMO declined to comment on Monday’s meeting.
In the blueprint presented on Monday, said Kirshner, “the ‘non-physical’ aspects of the plan would be paused for now, while the physical construction is scheduled to proceed as stated previously. These ‘non-physical’ parts refer namely to issues of visibility (the plaza must be fully visible to all visitors in a dignified way), a designated budget to maintain the site, and independent management of the site.”
The decision to only partially unfreeze the plan was met with unhappiness by some liberal streams, who said the new plan would not put the egalitarian plaza, currently tucked in a corner and much lower than the main plaza, on equal footing.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Reform movement told The Times of Israel that while the architectural plans were not in dispute, “We still insist that all elements of the compromise — visibility, [independent] budget, and the partnership of all movements in its management — should be implemented.”
Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs told The Times of Israel, “The physical aesthetic is but one component of this agreement.
“To account for the physical blueprint while neglecting the requisite priorities outlined in the agreement — visibility, budget, and management — may be likened to keeping women relegated to the back of the bus but reupholstering the seats.”
“Until and unless all conditions of the agreement are fulfilled, Women of the Wall will remain in the women’s section,” she said, indicating her group would continue to boycott the new plaza.
The 2016 government decision would have created a much enlarged prayer platform, as well as increased visibility. The entrance to the platform would have been joint with the one currently serving the main prayer area, so that all worshipers at the Western Wall would use the same entrance. Additionally, the egalitarian area would have been overseen by a pluralistic committee and would not have been under the aegis of the Israeli Chief Rrabbinate.
Since the plan was frozen, the liberal movements, Women of the Wall, and several other parties for and against the pluralistic platform, called in Hebrew “Ezrat Yisrael,” have petitioned the High Court to resolve the situation.
In an early March written response to the High Court, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that the southern section of the Western Wall should be designated as a “holy site” for pluralistic prayer, and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate should not have any control over the area. Mandelblit also wrote that the government must create a body that would be responsible for the area, but which would not include representatives of the Orthodox rabbinate or the rabbi of the Western Wall.
Pre-construction preparation began in early February and permits from the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority are in place for continued construction after the peak tourist season of Israel’s 70th anniversary Independence Day celebrations, The Times of Israel was told.
When completed, the new permanent pavilion will replace the large temporary bleacher-like platform that was put up by Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett ahead of the High Holy Days in 2013 and greatly enlarge the modest prayer deck which has served liberal Jewry since 2000.
Head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement Dr. Yizhar Hess said on Tuesday that “it is clear there has been progress made on this issue.”
Hess said he “welcomes any progress made on the physical implementation of the plan, and the transformation of Ezrat Yisrael into a more worthy and dignified place.”