Lashing out at Reform and Conservative Jews, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker said Wednesday that a minor earthquake in the north of the country may have been caused by their ongoing efforts to build a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall.
“Today we heard there was some sort of earthquake,” Shas party MK Yinon Azoulay told the Knesset plenum during a debate over the prayer area. “Perhaps we should consider that this earthquake was because someone is trying to get at what is holy to us.”
A series of tremors early Wednesday morning shook the Haifa region and northern Israel. This was followed by another similar quake of 4.3 on the Richter scale later that night.
An original decision to build an egalitarian 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.
Although 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.
“They aren’t Jews,” Azoulay said in a viscous tirade against the Reform and Conservative groups campaigning for the mixed prayer area. “What do you care about antiquities and the stones of the Kotel [Western Wall]? Take the money you are investing in the country and build yourselves a Western Wall in the US.”
The 2016 plan 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.
Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the compromise in June 2017. But while killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.
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.
Early Tuesday morning, the Knesset voted for Netanyahu to head a committee tasked to implement the egalitarian prayer space, replacing Culture Minister Miri Regev.
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.