Non-Orthodox Jewish organizations in Israel plan to soon sue the Israeli government in order to secure a space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, for mixed-gender prayer, the groups said in a letter released July 11.
The letter indicates that the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel have given up hope that the government would implement its plan, announced in January 2016, to create a new space for worshippers, mostly from the Reform, Conservative, and other liberal movements, who wish to pray at the Kotel in a mixed-gender service.
According to the current status quo at the Western Wall, the men’s and the women’s sections are separated by a partition. The government’s most recent plan is the culmination of nearly three decades of fighting between the ultra-Orthodox, who control the Western Wall, and the non-Orthodox movements; numerous appeals to Israel’s High Court of Justice; and three years of intensive negotiations between the government, the Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox organization that manages the Western Wall, and the representatives of the liberal movements in Israel and abroad.
According to the agreement, the new section, to be known as Ezrat Israel (the section for all of Israel), was to have been established to the south of the main Kotel Plaza, in an area popularly known as Robinson’s Arch. Furthermore, to symbolize the equality between the sections, a new, unified entrance to all three areas, was to be constructed.
But since the government’s decision, which passed despite the opposition of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, these parties have been pressuring the government to pull out of the agreement. They warn of “bloodshed” if the government continues to ignore the incitement against them. In June, speaking on an Israeli radio station Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, rabbi of the Old City, declared that “there cannot be any compromise with the Reform,” and called upon the entire ultra-Orthodox public to “prevent the Reform from desecrating our holy spaces.”
Also in June, Rabbi Amar, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, held a protest prayer at the area marked for the egalitarian worship, and put up a separation between men and women. With tears in his eyes, he denounced the planned new plaza as an “unforgivable wrong” and promised to be “vigilant” in the face of the “desecration” of the Western Wall.
In past weeks, ultra-Orthodox protestors have attacked liberal worshippers several times, as police stood by. Last week, during prayers by Women of the Wall, a women’s group that prays in the women’s section but, in contradiction with ultra-Orthodox custom, prays aloud, a man dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb publicly and gleefully tore apart one of their prayer books.
“We expect the police to protect us as we exercise our legal rights,” the leaders write, and they continue, “Rosh Chodesh Tammuz (the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, observed last week) ushers in the period of the calendar when we [are reminded] what we all know too well where sinat hinam (baseless hatred) can lead human beings – both historically and in modern events. As Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the Jewish Homeland, we urge you in the strongest terms to continue to work to forcefully and quickly stop such incitement and acts of anger.”
The letter concludes by reminding Netanyahu’s of his address to the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington, DC, in November, 2015, in which he promised, “I want to guarantee one thing to each and every one of you: As Prime Minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews – all Jews.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.