Israel breaks pledge on prayer area


Israel's government formally suspended plans on Sunday for a mixed-gender prayer space at Jerusalem's Western Wall, bowing to opposition from Orthodox Jewish politicians to reforms at one of Judaism's holiest sites.

In what was hailed a "historic" deal, Israel's Cabinet had in January 2016 approved a plan to create a third section at the Western Wall where women and men would be allowed to pray together. The ultra-Orthodox parties opposed it from the outset, and the original cabinet resolution lacked details and sidestepped any formal recognition of non-Orthodox religious branches in Israel. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is now separated between men's and women's prayer sections.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.

Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, called the decision "shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women". I think it shows cowardice.

"It's a bad day for women in Israel when the prime minister sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists, who want to enforce their religious customs while intentionally violating the rights of the majority of the Jewish world, 51 percent being women", Hoffman continued. "And then today they decide that it is null and void, that they're not going to implement it, that equality is out the window".

Currently, the wall is officially administered by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, but the new section would have been managed by a Conservative or Reform rabbi.

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American Jews, who have long lamented Israel should be as accepting of their religious practices as they are of their financial and political support, have been pushing for the new prayer area and had warned that if the deal did not go through it would lead to a unsafe rupture with North American Jewry.

Uri Ariel, the agriculture minister from the Jewish Home Party who supported canceling the 2016 decision, said, "It took time, but we have succeeded in persuading the government to cancel the deal, which damaged the Kotel and the Jewish status quo".

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi lauded the prime minister's decision to temporarily nullify the plan. Sunday's decision appears to reinforce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strong ties with the ultra-Orthodox members of his governing coalition. The ultra-Orthodox want the law to pass before the Israeli Supreme Court hears a petition submitted by the Reform Movement to recognize reform conversions as well. 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 toward converts and interfaith marriages. "The decision of the government that will divide the Western Wall-which is the heart of the Jewish people-was fundamentally wrong and it is a good thing that it was stopped".

"Don't blame the Haredim", Deri said, noting that Shas and UTJ never promoted legislation prohibiting Reform and Conservative prayer at the Kotel, but merely responded to the legal challenges posed by the non-Orthodox factions. "There is no room there for destructive factions whose only objective is to desecrate the site".

More liberal streams of Judaism, which outside of Israel have larger followings than Orthodoxy, chafe at the restriction. But they still have very little political backing, and authorities have generally tended to regard them as a somewhat alien offshoot imported from North America that does not mesh with how religion is typically practiced in Israel.

"Even the Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked voted in favor of the plan, and the cancellation of that decision today constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities and the fabric of relations between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry".