Women of the Wall demonstration at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 7, 2016.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Reform and Conservative movements, together with the Women of the Wall organization, have told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they are ready to file a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that a prayer section be created at the central Western Wall plaza for egalitarian prayer.
Director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess told The Jerusalem Post that the petition could be filed “within days.”
In a joint letter sent on Sunday to the prime minister, the leaders of the progressive Jewish denominations in Israel and the US, along with WOW, said that they are “deeply disappointed” by the failure to implement the January agreement to create a large, government- recognized egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall.
In addition, they criticized Netanyahu and the government for allowing legislation designed to prevent the progressive Jewish denominations from using public mikvaot for conversion ceremonies to go ahead, as well as what they called “unprecedented incitement by cabinet and Knesset members toward Conservative and Reform Jews.”
In a cabinet decision approved 15 to 5 in January, the government agreed to dramatically upgrade an existing egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall, to appoint an oversight committee for it including representatives of the progressive movements, and to provide a single access to the Western Wall for all denominations.
Chief Rabbi David Lau, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, and other senior haredi rabbis – joined eventually by United Torah Judaism and Shas – spoke out fiercely against the deal and vowed to stymie it, leading to repeated delays in implementation and the current deadlock.
“Given the impasse at the Kotel, the pending mikvaot legislation, and the ongoing hateful rhetoric and actions of the haredi members of the government, the Reform and Conservative movements intend, in the very near future, to bring a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding the reapportionment of the northern plaza prayer space from a men’s and women’s section to three sections: men, women, and mixed,” the non-Orthodox leaders wrote in their letter to the prime minister.
They said that they appreciate Netanyahu’s verbal commitments to the agreement, but said that “we expect you to close the gap between your statements and the actions of your government,” citing a promise he made to the US Jewish community in November that he would ensure that all Jews feel at home in Israel.
The letter was signed by Hess, WOW chairwoman Anat Hoffman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform Movement in the US, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbi Steve Wernick, head of the Conservative Movement in the US.
Earlier this month, the state submitted its response to a petition filed by the Center for Women’s Justice on behalf of the Original Women of the Wall group, which broke away from WOW, which requires that women be allowed to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall.
In its response, the State Attorney’s Office said that the government intends to begin the necessary work at the Robinson’s Arch area of the southern Western Wall to physically prepare for the new, expanded prayer site.
However, it said that efforts to change the regulations of the Western Wall site, which are a critical part of the greater plan, are ongoing, and requested that the court allow such efforts to continue until at least the beginning of August.
The Reform and Conservative movements criticized this stance, saying they oppose partial implementation of the cabinet decision without the requisite guarantees that the full plan will be implemented.
Hess told the Post
on Monday that the prime minister and the government need to immediately begin implementing the different measures laid out in the timetable for the Western Wall agreement, specifically the changes to the regulations at the site, if they want to avert the submission of the High Court petition.
He also insisted that the mikvaot legislation must be also be stopped, calling it “discriminatory and “a disgrace.”
According to Hess, “It’s harder to think of a more destructive act to Israel-Diaspora relations… At a time when Zionism is fighting for its legitimacy, the government is taking post-Zionist actions. It is undermining the image of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is a strategic blow to one of Israel’s most important assets.”