As the High Court of Justice’s deadline for demolishing an illegally built synagogue in the Givat Ze’ev settlement approaches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with religious cabinet ministers, agreed on Sunday to build a replacement house of worship nearby, officials said.
Netanyahu met with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, along with the head of the Givat Ze’ev regional council, Yossi Avrahami, to finalize the deal that is aimed at relieving some of the contention surrounding the structure.
According to the agreement, construction on the proposed synagogue would begin immediately, and the congregation would move to a temporary location in the meantime.
Though the decision was touted as a compromise, some of the protesters, including the synagogue’s rabbi, have promised to continue fighting against the demolition order until the replacement synagogue has been completed — well beyond the November 17 deadline for the demolition of the current synagogue.
“We will wait until the [new] building is all set up, and then we will leave the synagogue,” Rabbi Azriel Cohen told the ultra-Orthodox Hakol Hayehudi media outlet.
“In the meantime, we will continue to put up a fight and the protest will continue until they bring us an offer that is acceptable to the entire community,” Cohen added.
The Yesh Din human rights organization, which filed the claim against the Ayelet Hashahar synagogue, said that the settlement had already scorned a previous offer of an alternative place of worship.
“The High Court of Justice has repeatedly postponed the execution of its verdict due to questionable request by the state, including a previous request by the PM. The worshipers were already offered replacement house of worship, yet they declined the offer. Our concern is that this is just another attempt to circumvent the courts’ ruling and avoiding the return of stolen property to its rightful owner,” the group said in a statement.
Yesh Din human rights first filed a claim against the synagogue in 2008, though the synagogue in question had been in use for nearly 20 years. According to the claim, the building had been constructed without permits on privately owned Palestinian land that had been illegally incorporated into the Jewish settlement, located northwest of Jerusalem.
Attorneys for the settlement provided the court with documentation they said proved their lawful purchase, but forensic analysis proved those papers to have been falsified.
The High Court of Justice initially ordered the synagogue to be demolished in August, and the Defense Ministry even had workers begin removing furniture from the synagogue in preparation. However, the order was postponed at the last minute due to an appeal by the government to delay the demolition until after the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
The demolition was rescheduled by the Supreme Court to be carried out by November 4.
In the days leading up to the fresh demolition order, however, the Defense Ministry faced a wave of opposition. Protesters barricaded themselves in the house of worship, vandals spray-painted “You don’t destroy synagogues” on the walls of the Supreme Court, and prominent rabbis released a statement condemning the demolition.
The Sephardic rabbis, including Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen, said in a public statement that the court order was to be ignored, and those who refused to participate in the “desecration of God’s name” would reap blessings from God.
“Until now we have been fighting with kid gloves, but when everyone is against us we won’t stop at anything. If there is no choice, we will even use violence,” David Harush, a synagogue official, said in response to the November 4 demolition order.
“We have gas canisters, masks, and anything we need to stop the destruction,” another protester said.
Extra security protection was even provided for the head of the Supreme Court, Justice Miriam Naor, who was behind the decision to have the synagogue demolished, in light of the increased threat.
As a result of the risk of violence, the court begrudgingly postponed the demolition order again in early November, giving the Defense Ministry until November 17 to raze the structure.
Since that decision, hundreds have flocked to the Ayelet Hashahar synagogue to support and join the protest. Over 600 supporters participated in a demonstration at the synagogue, according to the right-wing Israel National News outlet.
Police arrested six right-wing demonstrators on Thursday for an illegal protest and for blocking off one of the roads leading to the settlement with burning tires.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke out against the protesters on Monday, calling them “a group of bullies.”
Ya’alon claimed the motive behind the synagogue’s construction was not spiritual, but financial.
“They want to build another bed-and-breakfast to make some money, and in order to protect the location, they put up a synagogue,” the defense minister told reporters.
Netanyahu’s proposal to replace the Ayelet Hashahar synagogue was intended to be a compromise between the two sides. But despite his attempts at appeasement, prominent right-wing rabbis have promised to continue their fight.
Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and Rabbi David Chai Hacohen, the head of a prominent Bat Yam seminary, joined the synagogue’s rabbi in expressing their opposition to the agreement, claiming it went against Jewish law.
“If — God forbid — the synagogue is destroyed, who knows what sort of reproach will be upon the nation of Israel and what disasters will befall us as a result,” Lior’s office wrote in a statement following the announcement on Sunday.