Israel U-turns on mixed prayers space

2017-06-25 22:26


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Jerusalem - Israel's government on Sunday cancelled a landmark deal to create a space for women and men to pray together at the Western Wall, angering activists who have fought for the change for years.

Women and men currently must pray separately at Jerusalem's Western Wall under strict interpretation of Jewish law.

The deal to alter rules at one of Judaism's holiest sites was called off following pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism said on Sunday that Netanyahu had accepted their position to "freeze" the plan, a move that "reflects the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall's sanctity and status".

Progressive Jewish activists had long sought to change the rule in the face of strong opposition from the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which oversees religious activity at the Western Wall.

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 new prayer section would not have been under the control of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which opposed it and managed to prevent its implementation until this point.

Sunday's vote by the cabinet effectively cancelled the deal.

The decision was a "de-facto cancellation of the plan", the ultra-Orthodox parties said in a joint statement, noting it could only be changed by a further government decision.

Shas and UTJ also stressed the importance of cancelling the agreement before an upcoming court ruling.

Israel's supreme court is expected to soon rule on a petition filed by more liberal religious movements to force the government to implement the decision to create the mixed prayer space.

 'Deep disappointment' 

The freeze was welcomed by Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau as an amendment to the earlier "mistaken" decision, while critics described it as a "capitulation" that would damage ties with the Jewish world beyond Israel, most of which is not Orthodox.

A key figure in crafting the compromise plan to create the mixed prayer space expressed his "deep disappointment" at Sunday's decision to cancel it.

Natan Sharansky said the move would "make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult".

Sharansky is chairperson of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organisation that works to bring Jewish immigrants to Israel and to link the country to the diaspora.

Anat Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall, which has pushed to change rules at the holy site for years, called it "a terrible day for women in Israel when the PM sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists".

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of two ministers who opposed the vote, described the move as "a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people and communities and the fabric of relations between Israel and the Jewish diaspora".

The Western Wall, located in Jerusalem's Old City, is the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray.

It is venerated by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment wields legal power over a range of issues in the country and has often played a kingmaker role in its politics.

Read more on:    israel

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