A group of 16 members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition submitted a bill to the Knesset on Sunday that would prohibit any practices at the Western Wall that are not deemed strictly Orthodox. The bill would prevent women from wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, from reading from a Torah and from blowing a shofar at the Jewish holy site.
It would also prevent men and women from holding mixed services at the area known as the upper plaza, right above the gender-separated prayer plazas adjacent to the actual wall.
If passed, the new “Kotel Law” would prevent any religious practices that “offend worshippers at the place.” It would also provide the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s rabbinical court with sole jurisdiction over the Western Wall.
Those who violate its restrictions would face heavy sanctions: six months in prison or a 10,000-shekel fine.
If passed into law, the bill would constitute a major setback for Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group, which has been holding a monthly prayer service at the Western Wall for the past 27 years. Many of the participants in this service wear prayer shawls and tefillin, and the group has been fighting for years to be allowed to read from a Torah scroll at the site.
It would also signal a major defeat for the Reform and Conservative movements, which have used the upper plaza for egalitarian prayer services and had declared their intention to continue doing so until the government fulfills its promise to provide them with a new designated space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall.
The new bill was initiated by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party. It was signed not only by all the members of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset – Shas and United Torah Judaism – but also by three members of the Likud, Oren Hazan, David Amsalem and Miki Zohar, and by three members of the religious pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi, Bezalel Smootrich, Motti Yogev and Nissan Smoliansky.
The ultra-Orthodox have long held that women should be prohibited from wearing prayer shawls and tefillin at the Kotel, as well as from reading from the Torah there because such practices violate local custom. Following an appeal from Women of the Wall, a Jerusalem District Court verdict, handed down three years ago, found that this was not the case.
The new bill is clearly meant to override that ruling. It stipulates that “local custom” will be determined by “the law of the Torah” as interpreted by Israel’s rabbinical courts and the Chief Rabbinate. The chief custodian of the Western Wall, according to the bill, will be a rabbi appointed by the minister of religious affairs in coordination with Israel’s chief rabbis.
In cases where questions arise as to what practices constitute “local custom” at the Western Wall, according to the bill, the Kotel rabbi would be empowered to decide in consultation with the Chief Rabbinate. Women of the Wall, as well as the Conservative and Reform movements, has expressed outrage at this new legislative initiative, which Shas had already announced earlier this month. “The fact that members of Likud could support this bill is a big slap in the face to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who supported the deal for an egalitarian space reached with us,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel said the bill constituted a “test” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We expect him to declare in no uncertain terms that this bill will not move forward,” he said.