Key government minister drops support for egalitarian prayer section at Western Wall

Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky and Israeli government minister Tzachi Hanegbi speak to members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, Oct. 30, 2017. (David Shechter/Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel).

Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky and Israeli government minister Tzachi Hanegbi speak to members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, Oct. 30, 2017. (David Shechter/Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Israeli government minister whose approval is needed to advance the plan for the Western Wall’s egalitarian section has dropped her support for the proposal.

Miri Regev, the culture and sport minister, announced in a Facebook post late Wednesday that she would not approve the plan in her position as chair of the Knesset Committee for Holy Places. The chair’s permission is necessary to advance the plan.

On Thursday, in an interview with Army Radio, Regev said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would replace her as committee chair. The other committee members are Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.

Regev wrote in her Facebook post, “In the past months I have been torn. My conscience would not let me rest. I could not approve the Western Wall plan in a manner that would upset the status quo. The Reform Movement’s demand to turn the Wall into a place where men and women pray together is unacceptable to me or to Jewish tradition.

“I have decided to be faithful to my conscience and therefore I informed the prime minister that I do not intend to approve the Western Wall plan as chair of the Committee for the Holy Places.

Plans to renovate the site, with a budget of more than $7 million, have continued, despite the suspension of a comprehensive plan approved in 2016. Regev had voted to approve the comprehensive plan.

Natan Sharansky, the outgoing chair of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and a key architect of the plan, criticized Regev for her change of heart.

“Minister Regev’s conscience is her own matter, but her public about-face regarding the need to set established prayer practices at the site is most regrettable,” he said in a statement. “I hope the Prime Minister brings about the completion of the expanded prayer area known as Ezrat Yisrael, as he has repeatedly promised the Jewish people in Israel and abroad that he would.”

Lesley Sachs, director of the Women of the Wall, in an open letter to Regev said that the Women of the Wall are harassed by Western Wall officials every month when they hold their morning service for the new month in the women’s section of the Western Wall.

“While state-sanctioned hate – in the form of organized harassment and violence against Women of the Wall, as well as the indifference shown by those appointed to protect our freedoms – is tolerated, even encouraged, words of prayer ‘degrade’ the holy site, in your view,” Sachs wrote. “So offensive is a woman wrapped in a tallit that the sight has induced in you a crisis of ‘conscience.’

“I am disappointed and frustrated by your willingness to trample on women to achieve your political ambitions. I am horrified at the extent of your pandering to a loud minority of Ultra-Orthodox bullies, while ignoring your commitments to the whole of your People, and in particular, to Jewish women.”

In June 2017, the Cabinet suspended the deal as a result of negotiations between the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government. The suspension came after the government’s haredi Orthodox coalition partners pressured Netanyahu to scrap the agreement, including threatening to bring down the government.

The plan would have included a common entrance to the Western Wall plaza for all three sections and a public board to oversee the egalitarian prayer space and would include representatives of the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall.

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