Reform, Conservative Jews slam PM over refusal to build Kotel egalitarian area
MK Tzahi Hanegbi reportedly told ultra-Orthodox politicians the government has no intention of building egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, leading Reform and Conservative groups to warn 'there could hardly be a worse time to drive yet another wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jews.'
Reform and Conservative Jews blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, saying the government’s refusal to create an egalitarian prayer space along the southern reach of the Western Wall was nothing less than a “disgusting slap in the face” and evidence that the prime minister has no personal integrity.
“It is abhorrent, nothing else,” said Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks, director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and a representative for the Conservative movement to the Western Wall negotiations.
“We negotiated this agreement for three-and-a-half years in good faith with the government, the rabbi of the Western Wall, the ultra-Orthodox political parties—we all made compromises and we reached an agreement. There is no way for the ultra-Orthodox parties to say they were unaware of the details.
“But then the ultra-Orthodox street got word that they had compromised with Reform and Conservative Jews and they went nuts. They got (Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the ultra-Orthodox) rabbi of the Wall and the ultra-Orthodox parties to say they didn’t want to go through with it,” Sacks fumed.
Sacks spoke to Tazpit Press Service (TPS) following media reports that MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Likud), a close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the prime minister’s envoy to Reform and Conservative groups, told ultra-Orthodox politicians this week the government has no intention of implementing the deal.
Also this week, the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee held a stormy session to consider a request to allow the Chief Rabbinate to appoint independent counsel to represent the government at the High Court of Justice for deliberations on the Western Wall issue. Following the session, members of the National Union faction in the Bayit Yehudi party asked Netanyahu to allow the unusual move, calling Reform and Conservative groups a “small group of extremists from overseas.”
“The Western Wall is a space of sanctity and prayer for the entire Jewish people, and has been for generations, since the destruction of the Second Temple it has been the most unifying spot in the world for the Jewish people, a place that every person feels his or her connection to the ancient traditions of the eternal people,” wrote MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Uri Ariel.
The State’s refusal to allow non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall has been a point of friction for Diaspora Jews for decades, as well as the subject of repeated legal petitions asking the High Court of Justice to enforce the right to assembly and expression in a public space. It has also been the background to repeated violent protests by ultra-Orthodox visitors to the site during monthly services held by the Women of the Wall group.
In response to a petition by Reform and Conservative groups, the High Court of Justice has asked the state to explain its refusal to to allow the Women of the Wall to pray at the holy site, but the government has argued it should not be required to do so because there is an agreement in place to create the egalitarian space next door, even if it has yet to be implemented.
But that agreement, which was signed in January 2016 after years of negotiation between government representatives, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative groups and the Women of the Wall, has yet to be implemented, largely due to fears of violence on the ultra-Orthodox street and expected threats that would be made by ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas to quit the government.
The deal calls for the creation of a non-Orthodox prayer space to the south of the Western Wall plaza, out of the field-of-vision for Orthodox visitors to the main site. The agreement also calls for a joint entrance to be built for the two sites, as well as for the creation of a new directorate for the Western Wall to include all streams of religious Judaism.
Andrew Sacks said that Netanyahu’s pandering to Orthodox politicians amounts to little more than political gamesmanship at the expense of both principle and Israel’s concrete needs at the current time.
“The message is clear: Netanyahu has absolutely no interest in doing the 'right' thing—and by 'right,' I don’t only mean the ethical/democratic thing of protecting the rights of minorities to freedom of worship. I also mean the right thing as far as Israel’s relations with Diaspora communities are concerned. There could hardly be a worse time to drive yet another wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jews, but the prime minister has shown clearly that he is interested in keeping himself in the prime minister’s chair rather than acting in the interest of the State of Israel. It is an absolute disgrace."
Spokespeople for Prime Minister Netanyahu and MK Bezalel Smotrich declined to comment for this article.
Story reprinted with permission from TPS.