Future of prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall in doubt under Israel's fragile government

JERUSALEM – When Israel’s new government took office last June, it hinted that it would promote an egalitarian prayer site at the Western Wall of Jerusalem – a sensitive holy site that arose as a friction point between Jews over the manner of prayer there .

But the plan is reaching the limits of the fragile Israeli government, which, due to its own internal division, is struggling to move forward on the issue. The inaction has disappointed both Israeli religious pluralism groups and their American-Jewish allies, who view the problem as an important test of recognition by the Israeli government.

“Anyone can overthrow the government if they sneeze in the wrong direction,” said Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the wall, a group promoting pluralistic prayer in the holy place. “They are very careful with the temperature of the hot potatoes that come towards them, and the Western Wall is a special hot potato.”

The Western Wall is believed to be the holiest place for Jews to pray. Under ultra-Orthodox leadership, the wall is currently divided into male and female prayer sections.

Under the more liberal reform and conservative currents of Judaism, women and men pray together and women are allowed to read from the Torah, which Orthodox Judaism forbids. These streams are a minority in Israel but make up the majority of American Jews. Israel’s refusal to recognize these liberal currents has long been a point of tension with American Jews.

In 2016, after years of negotiations, Israel agreed to a plan to officially recognize a special prayer area on the Western Wall. The $ 9 million plan promised to expand an egalitarian place of worship and make it more hospitable for prayers and religious events held by Jews who follow non-Orthodox traditions.

The agreement was welcomed by Jewish American leaders and viewed as a major breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox authorities rule almost every aspect of Jewish life. But then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never implemented the plan due to objections from powerful ultra-Orthodox allies who initially supported him.

He put the plan on hold the following year, creating strained relationships with American Jewish leaders that lasted until he left office last year. His close relationship with President Donald Trump also unsettled the strongly democratic Jewish community.

American Jews have long complained that Israel should accept their religious practices as well as their financial and political support.

The new administration, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – the child of American immigrants – gave hope that the scheme can be revived.

As Israel’s then Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Bennett voted in favor of the plan when it was presented, reiterating the importance he attaches to relations with the US Jewish community. His coalition’s exclusion of all ultra-Orthodox parties only reinforced the feeling that the time was ripe to move the plan forward.

Under Bennett’s leadership, contacts between liberal Jewish leaders in the United States and Israeli government officials have increased. Bennett himself met with the leaders in what was felt to be an important step in repairing the links.

But Bennett leads a cumbersome coalition of parties from across the political spectrum – from nationalist to casual liberals to an Islamist faction – that agreed on the goal of ousting Netanyahu and little else. While the Western Wall Plan is included in agreements that brought the coalition together, its leaders have generally chosen to sidestep divisive issues that could shake their stability.

Women of the Wall members gather around a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh New Month prayers. Maya Alleruzzo / AP file

A continuation of the Western Wall Plan could spark an outcry from ultra-Orthodox opposition parties, who in turn could put pressure on more sympathetic elements of the coalition to oppose the move. And while the government is unlikely to trip over the Western Wall Plan, a public brawl within government ranks could wear down the already delicate ties that bind the coalition together.

“We must pay attention. The composition of this government is complex, “Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai told The Associated Press.

He said Bennett had decided to hold the plan on hold for the time being. “My bet is that it will happen in the end, but it won’t happen tomorrow or the next day.”

Bennett’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Wailing Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz did not make his position known on the agreement, but said the website was “not the place to participate in political struggles”.

Tensions on the Western Wall continue to mount. Dozens of women came to prayer on Monday wearing skull caps and prayer shawls – items that were reserved for men in Orthodox Judaism. In what was now a monthly ritual, they were received by young women who screeched and tried to drown out their prayers.

In November, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered to protest against the Women of the wall. They followed a call from ultra-Orthodox leaders not to have the site “desecrated”. Netanyahu, now in the opposition with his ultra-Orthodox allies, tweeted such a call again.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly regulate Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces, and funerals. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for upholding traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it opposes any intrusions by liberals, whom it often regards as second-class Jews, who ordain women and gays, and oppose converts and excessively include interfaith marriages.

Bennett’s administration is taking steps to loosen ultra-Orthodox influence. It has passed a reform of kosher certification for restaurants and tried to allow conversions to Judaism outside of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

Liberal currents have made progress in Israel in recent years and have founded synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens. A former leader of the liberal reform movement in Israel is now a legislator and the secular majority of Israel has become more accepted.

But the authorities tend to generally view them as somewhat foreign offshoots imported from North America and inconsistent with typical religious practice in Israel. That helps explain why the Western Wall accord is so important to them.

Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that the agreement, if implemented, would open the door to other steps towards religious pluralism in Israel.

“This is an issue that won’t change everything, but it will change and symbolically shift things towards more respect or legitimacy,” he said. “I hope this government finds the political will to do this.”

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