Government Nixes Western Wall Plan; Rights Groups Fume
The government shelved plans Sunday to create a defined space for non-Orthodox prayers at the Western Wall. The cabinet also said it would support legislation to enshrine a monopoly over conversion with the ultra-Orthodox controlled Chief Rabbinate. Both moves were intended to quiet opposition from haredi parties in the government who strenuously opposed both moves.
Only Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz voted against the measure.
The decision is a stinging rejection for Reform and Conservative Jewish groups, who have lobbied for years to gain legal legitimacy in Israel and who celebrated the Western Wall agreement in January, 2016 as a landmark moment.
The Western Wall has been a flashpoint for protests, and frequent violence, between ultra-Orthodox protesters and non-Orthodox groups wanting to hold prayer services at the site for decades. Government representatives, Reform and Conservative Rabbis, Knesset members and representatives of the Chief Rabbinate negotiated the deal over a period of two-and-a-half years, and the government’s refusal to implement it has been a painful reminder to the non-Orthodox groups of the haredi parties’ political power.
“Health Minister [Yaakov] Litzman [a member of the United Torah Judaism party] has said smugly that Prime Minister Netanyahu will choose the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition over Reform Jews in America every time,” said Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks, the head of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and a member of the negotiating team.
Reaction from non-Orthodox groups and their political supporters came quickly. The Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, said Reform Jews would continue to fight for equality and freedom of practice at the Western Wall and at any other holy site in the State of Israel.
“We stand together with our many partners in Israel and the Diaspora who understand that there is more than one way to be a Jew,” the group said.
Natan Sharansky, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the lead author on the agreement said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
“Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’
“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities.
“Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.
“The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” Sharansky said.
MK Nachman Shai, head of the Knesset Lobby to Strengthen the Jewish People and of the Lobby for Israel-US relations, said the “flik-flak” may give the government high marks in Orthodox communities, but does damage in terms of the government’s credibility.
“For American Jews, nearly all of whom were badly shaken [by this decision], there is a terrible feeling of disappointment and having been cheated.
“The Western Wall agreement that Natan Sharansky and Avichai Mandelblit drafted gave hope, but that hope has evaporated. The Jewish community in the United States is a strong bridge for ties between the two countries, but this morning it suffered a crack,” Shai said.