Shaked quits committee for Western Wall after national-religious pressure

Steinitz takes her place, averting crisis

A view of the Western Wall plaza, the Dome of the Rock and the top of Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of the Western Wall plaza, the Dome of the Rock and the top of Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has quit a ministerial committee responsible for approving slated upgrades to the egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall at the Robinson’s Arch area, endangering the implementation of the renovations.
Shaked’s decision on Sunday follows that of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, who quit the committee last week, and leaves just Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, of Shas, who will vote against the upgrade.
There was reportedly very little willingness from any other minister to take up the position owing to a huge, and apparently coordinated, campaign from hardline elements in the National Religious community against the renovations, a campaign which seemingly terrified the cabinet members for fear of a political backlash in Likud and Bayit Yehudi primaries.
But late on Sunday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz agreed to accept the position, saying in a statement to the press that he believed it was “the right thing to do,” pointing to his opposition and to the indefinite suspension of the comprehensive 2016 plan, which he described as “an unnecessary offense to millions of Reform and Conservative Jews.”
The office of Diaspora Affairs Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett declined a request for comment from The Jerusalem Post, while Shaked’s office also declined to say why she quit.
Netanyahu will now chair the committee alongside Steinitz and Azoulay.
Following the indefinite suspension in June 2017 of the 2016 government resolution on the Western Wall egalitarian site, Netanyahu initiated a plan to physically upgrade the prayer space and allocated some NIS 19 million for the project.
The plans, which have not been publicly revealed and have not been endorsed by the Reform or Conservative movements, require the approval of a three-member ministerial committee, in line with a clause in the Law for the Holy Places requiring approval from such a committee for any construction work at holy sites.
The physical upgrade was considered something of a sop to the progressive Jewish movements following the suspension of the more comprehensive agreement, but also a necessary step to ward off intervention on the issue by the High Court of Justice.
There is currently a petition before the court by the progressive denominations demanding either implementation of the January 2016 government resolution, or the establishment of an egalitarian section at the main Western Wall plaza.
The proximate cause of this current crisis over the renovations appears to be massive pressure by hardline elements of the national- religious community, including the Liba Center, right-wing activist Mati Dan, and politicians within Bayit Yehudi.
Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, an ardent opponent of the Reform and Conservative movements, wrote a letter to ministers and MKs over the weekend calling on them to oppose the upgrade to the site.
Sources close to Amar confirmed to the Post that Dan had been involved in coordinating and timing the rabbi’s letter.
Speaking to the Post, Dan said that he had been in touch with Regev on the issue but not Shaked.

IN ADDITION to Amar’s letter, 50 National Religious rabbis signed a letter calling on Shaked to oppose the renovations to the egalitarian prayer site. The letter was prompted by a body called the Joint Committee for the Preservation of the Holiness of the Western Wall, of which the Liba Center is a part.
And a letter was also sent on Sunday to the prime minister on behalf of senior archeologists, including Prof. Dan Bahat, insisting that the transfer of authority from the culture and sport minister was illegal.
Additionally, large numbers of Likud members signed a letter in support of Regev’s position against authorizing the renovations.
MK Bezalel Smotrich wrote on Twitter, “The attempt to present the struggle of the Reform [movement] at the Western Wall as a struggle for prayer rights is a gross lie,” saying it was instead a struggle of the Reform leadership against Orthodox Judaism in Israel and that he would oppose any change in the current status of the holy site.
Echoing Smotrich’s sentiment, Dan said that the impression given that progressive Jews cannot pray at, or are excluded from, the Western Wall is incorrect, and pointed out the non-Jews visit the main Western Wall prayer area and walk around while prayers are being conducted.
“There is no place more inclusive than the Western Wall. Could you go into a mosque in the middle of prayers?” he demanded. “Our nation after 2,000 years wants to be together, to be united and to feel that it is in a place which unites us,” saying that those advocating for a separate egalitarian prayer section were “reactionaries” who do not like the fact that the Jewish people is united and connected to God.
“This is separatism, trying to divide through force. There was only one Temple, despite the divisions [in ancient times], and the Western Wall is also one. You cannot divide the heart, you don’t split the heart. It’s a living heart. Come to the site, and respect the traditions in this state.”
Following Shaked’s announcement, Reform Movement director Gilad Kariv said, “The rabbinical establishment, which is becoming more haredi, and hardline National Religious elements which broke into the Likud party are putting the government of Israel under siege and turning its ministers into people who are cooperating with an organized campaign of hatred, intimidation, and civil dispute.”
Masorti (Conservative) Movement director Yizhar Hess said it was “sad to see the fear and paralysis that has fallen on the government of Israel because of hardline National Religious pressure who are signed up to the Likud and Bayit Yehudi parties.
“Even on a fast day they cooperate with a campaign of hatred of the haredim and hardline National Religious [elements], instead of supporting the idea that all Jews should be able to pray in their own way,” Hess continued, in reference to the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz, which fell on Sunday, and called on Netanyahu to press ahead with the renovations regardless.