PMO: Egalitarian section upgrade decision to go ahead without third minister

Azouali resigned as a member of the ministerial committee for approving the proposed, and rather modest, renovations on Sunday morning, the third minister to do so in just over a week.

Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the latest installment in the saga over the proposed renovations to the Western Wall egalitarian section, the Prime Minister’s Office has said a decision to carry out the upgrade will be taken despite the resignation of Religious Services Minister David Azoulay from the authorizing committee Sunday.
Azoulay resigned as a member of the ministerial committee for approving the proposed, and rather modest, renovations on Sunday, the third minister to do so in just over a week.
The renovations require the approval of a three-member ministerial committee, of which Azoulay was a member, but he quit to stop the committee convening, following rabbinic instructions from Shas’s Council of Torah Sages and pressure from Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Ten days ago Culture Minister Miri Regev quit the committee, shortly followed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, due to heavy pressure from hard-line national religious elements against both ministers, meaning that every original member of the authorizing body has now quit.
Last Monday, the Knesset approved the transfer of authority from Regev and Shaked to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Although Azoulay would have voted against the renovations he would have been defeated by Netanyahu and Steinitz, and so he, the Shas rabbinic leadership, Amar and the national-religious organizations opposing the renovations apparently believed it was more effective for him to simply quit the committee and prevent it convening.
However, the Prime Minister’s Office said a decision could be taken even without a full quorum of the committee, and that not every member needed to be in the committee meeting.
Netanyahu, Steinitz and head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Prof. Ivan Friedman did convene Sunday morning, but nevertheless declined to authorize the renovations.
The PMO did not say why the decision was further delayed, but said the committee “will not convene again. A decision will be made and transmitted to the cabinet- secretary.”
The planned renovations are relatively modest, and consist mainly of extending the current prayer platform to reach the actual stones of the Western Wall on one level, as opposed to the current situation where a small, lower platform is the only place where the egalitarian section touches the wall.
The platform will actually be narrowed somewhat, but it will be enlarged overall because of the extension up to the Western Wall stones.
The entrance to the egalitarian section will be enlarged and made more noticeable, while the access paths down to the platform will be improved.
Stairs will also be constructed from the site down to what is known as the Herodian street in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park at the southwest corner of the Western Wall where some non-Orthodox bar and bat mitzvah services are also conducted.
On Thursday, Amar issued a ruling stating the Western Wall is holy along its entire length, meaning at the southern end where the egalitarian section is located, and that “all the laws of a synagogue are incumbent there... and no one has the right to trample this holy place... with men and women praying together.”
And on Sunday, Azoulay said the head of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages Rabbi Shalom Cohen had instructed him to quit the committee.
“‘You shall do everything that they instruct you,’” wrote Azoulay in a Tweet Sunday morning, citing a biblical verse calling on the Jewish people to adhere to the words of its judges and saying he had quit in accordance with Cohen’s instructions.
“In accordance with the instructions of the Council of Torah Sages I will continue to oppose to various compromises regarding the Western Wall,” he added.
The Liba Center, a strongly conservative national-religious organization that is fervently opposed to the renovations, insisted it was illegal however to convene the ministerial committee without the full compliment of ministers, and said a new minister would need to be found to convene the committee and approve the renovations.
The PMO clearly does not accept this position however.
The Liba Center said following Azoulay’s resignation that “the awakening and storm of the Jewish people proved again this week that the Reform Movement, which has engraved on its banner opposition to Zionism and the return to Zion, is not able to determine the agenda in the State of Israel, and certainly not next to the remnants of the Temple. The public will not forgive anyone who cooperates with giving the Western Wall to the Reform.”
The organization did not immediately respond to the PMO’s stated intention to take a decision on the upgrade without Azoulay.
Reform Movement Director in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv welcomed Azoulay’s resignation from the committee, and called on him to resign as religious services minister as well.
“For his entire tenure, the minister has refused to behave with fairness and equality toward the non-Orthodox denominations, and took an active part in the campaign of incitement and discrimination against Reform Judaism,” said Kariv.
“A public servant who behaves like this is not fitting to be a minister,” he said, adding that his resignation proved that the prime minister had made a mistake when freezing the 2016 comprehensive Western Wall agreement since the haredi parties have proved they are unwilling to compromise at all.
Despite the PMO’s position, Kariv questioned why the decision to approve the renovations had not been made Sunday morning if Azoulay’s presence or membership in the committee was not necessary.
“If they can make a decision without Azoulai, why didn’t they vote on it? Either they can’t or they’re continuing their political games, and nodding to the Orthodox parties,” he said.