Government official says work on pluralistic Western Wall space continuing
Cabinet secretary says Netanyahu supports all Jewish streams praying as they wish, accuses critics of not paying attention
Stuart WinerStuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.
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Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman said Monday that preparations for a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem were continuing at the explicit instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite widespread hand-wringing after a cabinet decision on Sunday froze a previously approved plan regarding the site.
Referring to a barrage of criticism from across the liberal Jewish world directed at Netanyahu, who was seen as caving in to ultra-Orthodox demands, Braverman accused critics of trying to score political points and said they had “paid no attention” to the details of the decision.
On Sunday, the government suspended a plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area, following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal. The plan would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving representatives of all major streams of Judaism.
Currently, a prayer space at the Western Wall south of the main plaza and down several flights of stairs hosts pluralistic prayer. The deal would have seen construction work to raise the space up to the same level as the rest of the main plaza, and would have given control of the site to all religious streams under the state’s imprimatur.
Braverman said Netanyahu had ordered work to continue in preparing the plaza and that it remain open to all streams of Judaism.
“It is important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew be able to pray at the Western Wall,” Braverman said in a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office.
He did not detail what kind of work was continuing at the site.
“The prime minister instructed Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and me to continue with talks in order to try and reach a solution,” he added.
Speaking to Army Radio on Sunday, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said that the plan for a mixed prayer area was suspended, but not nixed completely.
“I’m telling you the reality,” Hanegbi said. Leading ultra-Orthodox MKs “Gafni, Litzman and Deri met with the prime minister many times and tried to annul the mixed plaza deal as if it never existed.”
However, he continued, Sunday’s decision did not terminate the plans for a mixed prayer area. He said that construction would continue on a plaza at the southern wall where men and women have been able to pray together for over 15 years.
He said he would use the framework of the proposal which was put on ice as the basis for a new compromise solution.
The reversal was immediately condemned by liberal Jewish groups around the world and by the Jewish Agency, as well as numerous Israeli politicians, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said the development was “a severe blow to Jewish unity.”
Women from the Women of the Wall group pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall, Sunday, June 25, 2017. (Michal Fattal/Courtesy Women of the Wall)
The Jewish Agency on Monday passed a resolution calling on the government to rescind the decision regarding the pluralistic prayer pavilion, saying that the government’s move contradicts the vision of Israel’s founding fathers and the spirit of Zionism.
The resolution, passed unanimously by the agency’s board of governors in an emergency meeting in Jerusalem, marked the first time the institution — which predates the existence of the State of Israel — has explicitly called on the Israeli cabinet to walk back a decision.
Last week, the ultra-Orthodox parties again demanded the “total cancellation” of last year’s plan, as the Chief Rabbinate demanded it be allowed to hire its own lawyers to oppose the deal in the High Court.
The rabbinate’s request was backed up by Jewish Home Minister Uri Ariel and his party member Betzalel Smotrich in a letter they penned to Netanyahu on Thursday, which also implored the Israeli leader to scrap the deal in defiance of “extremist elements across the sea,” in an apparent reference to Reform and Conservative Jewry.