Sunday 19 January 2020

Anger as Netanyahu drops plan for mixed-gender prayer area at Western Wall

The Israeli government has dropped a plan to open a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall (AP)
The Israeli government has dropped a plan to open a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall (AP)

A group of Jewish leaders has cancelled a gala event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest against his government's decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The stunning move reflects an unprecedented gulf that has erupted between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practised in Israel.

The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a non-profit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Mr Netanyahu and altering the agenda of its annual meetings to address the crisis.

The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned it could undermine their long-standing political, financial and emotional support for Israel.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky was just one of several senior officials who condemned the move, saying it undermines Jewish unity and calling on the government to reverse course.

"This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us," he told Israel's Army Radio.

Dennis Ross, a former top US peace negotiator and currently chair of The Jewish People Policy Institute, said he was afraid that American Jews would no longer see Israel as a home.

"We're a small people. We are, in a sense, in one house and there shouldn't be any exclusion and there shouldn't be those who define for others whether or not they're Jewish," Mr Ross told the radio.

The dramatic about-face at Sunday's Cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January 2016 to officially recognise the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall - the holiest site where Jews can pray.

The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.

But the programme was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections to the decision they had initially endorsed.

Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed.

The nixing of the planned 9 million US dollar (£7.1 million) plaza, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, sparked the immediate ire of liberal Jews.

Highlighting its sensitivity, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet's agenda and no official statement on the decision was made.

Mr Netanyahu himself notably refrained from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews on a Birthright trip to Israel and has kept quiet amid the outpouring of anger, even among some of his closest allies.

Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general on Monday to review what he called a murky decision-making process.

"Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it," he wrote.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials.

The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive towards converts and interfaith marriages.

The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered a wall of ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to official state recognition and breaking the monopoly on religious practices.

"We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement," Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

"But the Cabinet's decision last night - a cynical, even wicked decision - took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world."


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