Netanyahu’s office defends vote to freeze Western Wall agreement

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Prime Minister’s Office in Israel said it was working to ensure that Jews of all streams can feel comfortable praying at the Western Wall after the Cabinet voted to freeze an agreement that would have made a permanent space there for women and men to pray as they wish.

Non-Orthodox and feminist groups in Israel and the Diaspora reacted with outrage Sunday at the news that the government had suspended the 17-month-old agreement under pressure from haredi Orthodox interests. 

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman said in a statement Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had issued directives instructing that work be expedited to create a comfortable egalitarian section to the south of the Western Wall plaza. A small prayer area near that site, known as Robinson’s Arch, has been in use since 2000.

Braverman said Netanyahu had issued a directive that “Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today.”

Braverman also said that Netanyahu instructed him and fellow minister Tzachi Hanegbi “to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution.”

“It is important to Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall,” Braverman said in the statement, adding: “I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts.”

Leaders of Diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall group originally sought a space at the familiar Western Wall plaza to the north of Robinson’s Arch where women and men could pray together and women could wear tallitot and yarmulkes and pray from a Torah scroll. The January 2016 compromise called for a larger and more permanent prayer space to the south of the plaza, a single entrance to the entire Western Wall complex, a pluralistic joint committee to oversee the southern area and a budget to pay for it.

Following Sunday’s announcement of the Cabinet vote to “freeze” the compromise, its proponents issued statements criticizing Netanyahu for reneging on his commitments. They are unlikely to be assuaged by Braverman’s terse defence of the status quo.

Freezing the compromise only deepens “the already accelerating divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel, precisely at a time when Jewish unity has never been more important,” Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, said in a statement Monday. “We call on the government to immediately restore and move ahead with the Kotel agreement – a rare, unified compromise between all denominations that would be a landmark achievement for all Jews.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and one of two Cabinet members to vote against the decision to freeze the agreement with liberal groups, said in a statement that it “constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities, and the fabric of relations between the State of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.”

Liberman said at the beginning of his party faction’s meeting Monday that he would not bring down the government over the issue, however, but work to come to a compromise.

Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, spoke in English at the beginning of his party’s faction meeting in order to reach the Jewish Diaspora, particularly U.S. Jews, he said.

“I want to tell you that the vast majority of the citizens of Israel oppose the two decisions taken yesterday by the government,” he said, referring to the Western Wall decision and a separate conversion bill that would solidify conversions in Israel under the authority of the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

“Do not give up on us. We have no intention of giving up on you. We are one people. It might take time. It might take elections. But in a democracy the majority decides and the majority in Israel want us to be one nation.”

He also said, “We will fight this together until these two decisions are cancelled.”

Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party leader Arye Deri, who opposes the Western Wall compromise, said during his party’s meeting that dividing the Western Wall “destroys Jewish unity.”

He added: “Every Jew in the world, and non-Jews, can come pray there.

“We have nothing against Jews, in any place they may be. They are all our brothers. Our fight is against the approach, this ideology which is attempting to bring a new Judaism here, is trying to destroy everything that we built here over the years.”

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