US urges Israel to advance frozen deal for Western Wall egalitarian space

Diplomat’s tweet appears to be first time Biden administration weighs in on issue, which has been major source of tension in Israel-Disaspora ties

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The mixed prayer area outside the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem's Old City on August 25, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The mixed prayer area outside the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem's Old City on August 25, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Biden administration urged Israel on Sunday to implement the long-frozen agreement to renovate and formalize an egalitarian prayer space at the Orthodox-controlled Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The call by US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain appeared to be the first time that the administration weighed in on the issue. The tussle over development of the prayer space has been a particular source of tension between Israel and the largely non-Orthodox Jewish Diaspora, but has not generally factored into diplomatic ties between the US and Israel.

“I visited the Western Wall for the first time today and met with Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz. I reiterated US support for implementation of the 2016 Western Wall agreement to expand the egalitarian space at the Wall,” Hussain tweeted Sunday.

The compromise would create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion alongside gender-separated prayer spaces at the open-air Jerusalem shrine, with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing an oversight role.

The egalitarian space currently exists in somewhat of a legal gray zone and lacks any formal recognition of its status, technically under the authority of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi of the Western Wall but permitted to operate outside Orthodox rabbinical purview by order of the prime minister.

The space, on a platform erected above archeological ruins near the wall known as Robinson’s Arch, is not contiguous with the main plaza, which sits dozens of feet above it.

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)

The Western Wall compromise would have granted official status to the egalitarian section and expanded the main plaza to include it, while affirming gender segregation for the other prayer sections of the holy site.

The compromise was approved by the cabinet in 2016, but the following year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved to ultra-Orthodox pressure and put the compromise on hold indefinitely. At the time, he promised to improve the infrastructure at the site.

Members of the previous government led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett pledged to unfreeze the project but largely failed to do so amid pressure from their own Orthodox coalition partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government is seen as highly unlikely to change course, and coalition members even submitted a bill in February that would outlaw egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall altogether. Netanyahu’s Likud said it had removed the bill from its legislative agenda after news of its submission sparked an immediate outcry.

Despite the majority that Orthodox lawmakers hold in the current coalition, the government informed the High Court of Justice in February that it was still working to fix and improve the egalitarian section of the Western Wall.

However, it did not indicate a timeframe for when fixes to the site, which have been promised even after the freeze went into place, will be made. Moreover, the response to the High Court petition did not touch on the granting of recognition to non-Orthodox streams at the Western Wall.

While Hussain appeared to be the first Biden official to comment on the Western Wall compromise in particular, Biden officials have weighed in on issues of religious freedom in Israel more broadly.

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who proudly identifies as a Reform Jew, visited the site in 2021 on one of his first days as envoy.

US antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt publicly expressed her dismay after a 2021 incident at the Western Wall in which ultra-Orthodox extremists interrupted bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the site’s egalitarian plaza.

Hussain was in Israel over the weekend and visited Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque, together with US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr.

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