Kahana wary over implementing Western Wall agreement

The religious services minister is reluctant to advance the Western Wall agreement due to political weaponization by the opposition, clarifying that he does not have authority over the issue.

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has grown skeptical about the implementation of the Western Wall agreement due to the political capital the Likud and other opposition parties are making out of the issue.

According to a spokesman for the minister, Kahana has noted the intense campaign against the deal by Likud MKs, and believes implementing the long-stalled deal would play into the hands of the Likud and the other religious parties in the opposition.

At the same time, another source close to Kahana noted that the minister is still implementing his controversial kashrut reforms, while seeking to enact even more controversial reforms to the Jewish conversion system, saying that the minister can only fight on a limited number of fronts.

These comments follow a report in the Zman Yisrael Hebrew-language news website saying Kahana told aides that the government does not want to implement the agreement at this stage, because the plan had become “a focus for division and hatred” used principally by Likud officials to gain political traction.

The Western Wall agreement approved in 2016 but indefinitely suspended in 2017 would have seen the current prayer platform for non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall designated in law as a prayer space for non-Orthodox worship.

Jewish worshipers celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall in 2019. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Jewish worshipers celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall in 2019. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The plan gives representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements a place on the site’s governing committee, and the site itself would be dramatically upgraded.

At the same time, the central Western Wall plaza would be designated in law as a place for Orthodox prayer only.

“The minister is not dealing with the issue, and it is not under his authority,” said Kahana’s office, and that Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo is dealing with the matter.

Shlomo has indeed been tasked with addressing the issue, and met last week with representatives of the Reform and Masorti Movement in Israel (Conservative) and the Women of the Wall prayer group who praised him for his “attentiveness and serious attitude to advancing an appropriate solution for the Western Wall issue.” They added that they expect further “fruitful discussions in the coming weeks.”

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to requests for comment as to Bennett’s position on the issue.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai warned on Sunday that “a coalition wanting to have a long life would be advised to learn that coalition agreements must be honored,” in reference to Labor’s coalition deal with Yesh Atid that calls for the implementation and full funding of the Western Wall agreement.

“The government of Israel will continue to work toward the implementation of the Western Wall agreement,” added Shai. “As long as we sit in the government we will push for equality for all denominations. Responsibility [over the agreement] lies far from Kahana’s office, and that is a good thing.”

The Reform, Masorti, and Women of the Wall organizations sent a letter to Shlomo calling on him and the Prime Minister’s Office to clarify whether the government intends to advance a resolution for the Western Wall “within a reasonable time frame.”

“This government declared that it would take a moderate path, and therefore it is unthinkable that threats and bullying behavior by haredi Orthodox extremists will prevent Jews in Israel and the Diaspora the ability to hold respectable egalitarian prayers at the holiest site for the Jewish people,” said Anna Kislanski, director of the Reform Movement in Israel.

In the letter to Shlomo, the three movements noted that in the state’s response to their petition to the High Court of Justice that the 2016 agreement be implemented, the state’s attorneys did not mention government plans to advance that deal but rather plans to simply carry out a physical upgrade to the current egalitarian site instead.

The leaders said that the comments attributed to Kahana “create a severe crisis of confidence between the government of Israel and liberal Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora, which requires your urgent attention. A message of capitulation to extremists who seek to forcibly impose their opinion is in total contradiction to the infrastructure on which this government was founded.”