Following the de facto cancellation of the Western Wall agreement on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office has initiated a process to upgrade the current site for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the complex.The move is designed to placate Diaspora Jewry and the progressive Jewish denominations, but equally to ward off intervention from the High Court of Justice, which currently has a strong petition from the progressive Jewish denominations before it.
Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman issued a statement on Monday underlining that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had issued instructions to expedite the construction work to perform the necessary improvements to the site.Sources in the PMO told The Jerusalem Post that the upgrade would be very similar to the significant renovations proposed under the original agreement that had been approved by government resolution in January 2016.The PMO said in a statement on Sunday that “construction [work] to prepare the southern plaza will be advanced,” which Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said would involve making the current egalitarian prayer area a more suitable and dignified place for communal prayer.Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday, however, that the upgrades would not include the single, joint entrance to the central Western Wall plaza that had been one of the two critical elements of the original government resolution.The other element, concerning the administration of the egalitarian site by a committee including representatives from the progressive Jewish denominations, will also not be implemented, Bennett acknowledged. The original resolution would have turned the current prayer area at what is known as Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall, from an informal place for non-Orthodox prayer that is currently run and funded by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, into a grand plaza for egalitarian prayer and a state-recognized holy site funded by the government. It is that status which the haredi political parties objected to so greatly, as well as the shared entrance.Speaking to the Post, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement in the US, categorically rejected renovations at the Robinson’s Arch site as a solution to the dispute.“To unilaterally decide to carry out modest renovations at this site and tell us that ‘this is what you get’ is not how partners act,” Jacobs said.“What the PMO is considering doing at Robinson’s Arch, compared to what was agreed on, is very different; it is at a very basic level and is nothing compared to what the original resolution stipulated.”On Sunday, Hanegbi told the Post that as well as making the site more respectable, the renovation was designed to make High Court intervention less likely.The petition of the progressive Jewish denominations, together with the Women of the Wall organization, demands either implementation of the original Western Wall resolution or an egalitarian prayer area at the central Western Wall plaza. The petition argues that the current situation violates Israel’s laws for freedom of access and worship at the state’s holy sites, and that the facilities at Robinson’s Arch are insufficient and not a state-recognized holy site.With work beginning on a serious upgrade to the Robinson’s Arch site, Netanyahu is clearly hoping that the High Court will have less room to intervene.
Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)