Western Wall prayer site's future is in doubt under Israel's fragile government
JERUSALEM — When Israel's new government took office last June, it indicated it would press ahead on an egalitarian prayer site at Jerusalem's Western Wall — a sensitive holy site that has emerged as a point of friction between Jews over how prayer is conducted there.
But the plan is coming up against the limits of Israel's fragile government, which is struggling to move forward on the issue due to its own internal divisions. The inaction has disappointed both Israeli groups that promote religious pluralism and their American Jewish allies, who view the issue as an important test of recognition from the Israeli government.
"Anyone can topple the government if they sneeze in the wrong direction," said Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group that advocates for pluralistic prayer at the holy site. "They are very cautious with the temperature of the hot potatoes that come their way and the Western Wall is a special hot potato."
The Western Wall is considered the holiest site where Jews can pray. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections.
Under the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, women and men pray together and women are allowed to read from the Torah, which Orthodox Judaism prohibits. Those streams are a minority in Israel but make up the majority of American Jews. Israel's refusal to recognize these liberal streams has long been a point of tension with American Jews.
After years of negotiations, Israel approved a plan in 2016 to officially recognize a special prayer area at the Western Wall. The $9 million plan vowed to expand an egalitarian prayer site and make it more hospitable to prayer and religious events held by Jews who don't follow Orthodox traditions.
The deal was welcomed by Jewish American leaders and seen as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life. But then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never implemented the plan due to objections from powerful ultra-Orthodox allies who had initially endorsed it.
He shelved the plan the following year, leading to strained relations with American Jewish leaders that continued until he left office last year. His tight relationship with President Donald Trump further unsettled the heavily Democratic-leaning Jewish community.
American Jews have long lamented that Israel should be as accepting of their religious practices as they are of their financial and political support.
The new government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — the child of American immigrants — brought hope that the plan may be revived.
As Israel's minister of diaspora affairs at the time, Bennett voted in favor of the plan when it was initially tabled and repeatedly expressed the importance he placed in the relationship with the U.S. Jewish community. That his coalition excludes any ultra-Orthodox parties only heightened the feeling that the time was ripe for the plan to move forward.
Under Bennett's leadership, contacts between U.S. liberal Jewish leaders and Israeli government officials have surged. Bennett himself met with the leaders in what was perceived as a major step in repairing ties.
But Bennett heads an unwieldy coalition of parties from across the political spectrum that was united behind the goal of ousting Netanyahu and very little else. While the Western Wall plan features in agreements that brought the coalition together, its leaders have generally chosen to sidestep divisive issues that might rattle its stability.
"We need to be careful. The make-up of this government is complex," Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Associated Press.
He said that Bennett had decided to hold off on the plan for now. "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, the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, did not disclose his position on the agreement but said the site is "not the place to engage in political struggles."
Tensions at the Western Wall continue to flare. On Monday, dozens of women arrived to pray wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls — items reserved for men under Orthodox Judaism. In what has become a monthly ritual, they were met by young women shrieking in an attempt to drown out their prayers.
In November, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered to protest the Women of the Wall. They heeded a call by ultra-Orthodox leaders to not have the site "desecrated." Netanyahu, now in the opposition with his ultra-Orthodox allies, retweeted one such call.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. 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.
Bennett's government is taking steps to loosen the ultra-Orthodox hold. It has passed a reform in kosher certifications for restaurants and is attempting to allow conversions to Judaism outside of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.
The liberal streams have made strides in Israel in recent years, establishing synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens. A former leader of the liberal Reform movement in Israel is now a lawmaker and Israel's secular majority has become more accepting.
But 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. That helps explain why the Western Wall agreement is so important to them.
Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that if implemented, the agreement would open the door to other steps toward religious pluralism in Israel.
"This is an issue that won't change everything, but it will change and symbolically shifts things towards more respect or legitimacy," he said. "I hope this government will find the political will to do it."
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