What happened to the renovation of the Western Wall egalitarian section?

A planned NIS 19 million upgrade of the neglected ‘Ezrat Yisrael’ section for progressive Jewish prayer remains unimplemented three years after Netanyahu promised to improve the site.

The Western Wall (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The Western Wall
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
In the three years that have passed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to renovate the egalitarian prayer area of the Western Wall after the indefinite suspension of the Western Wall agreement, the project remains unimplemented and practically forgotten.
The last that was heard of the NIS 19 million program to physically upgrade the prayer area designated for non-Orthodox prayer was in December 2018, when the Jerusalem Municipal Council rejected the prime minister’s proposals in the Jerusalem District Planning Committee.
Some 18 months later, Netanyahu’s promise – designed to placate progressive Jewish movements and US Jewish leadership – remains unfulfilled.
In June 2017, the government dealt US Jewry a stinging blow when it froze the long-negotiated Western Wall agreement, which would have created a state recognized, greatly upgraded egalitarian prayer site at the southern end of the Western Wall.
On the same day, the government also gave preliminary approval to legislation that would have given the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversion.
These two developments created a huge crisis with the US Jewish leadership.
In order to placate them, but equally to ward off intervention from the High Court of Justice on the issue, Netanyahu pledged NIS 19 million to carry out physical renovations to the existing, egalitarian prayer site, which suffers from a lack of basic amenities and facilities required of a Jewish prayer site, especially in comparison to the elaborate prayer site at the central Western Wall Plaza.
The watered-down proposals are themselves 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, in which a small, lower platform, currently shut due to damage from a stone fall, is the only place where the egalitarian section touches the wall.
Despite this, elements in the hard-line, conservative wing of the religious-Zionist sector lobbied heavily against Netanyahu’s proposals, creating roadblocks and obstacles at every turn.
This led to the resignation of all three members of a special ministerial committee that was required to approve the renovations, including then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked, then-culture minister Miri Regev and the late religious services minister David Azoulay, who objected to the project.
Despite this setback, Netanyahu forced through the approval of the renovation by the government, but then needed to obtain planning permission for the construction work itself.
Initially it was thought that the plans could be approved in the Jerusalem Municipal Council, with the help of newly installed Mayor Moshe Lion.
Lion, however, came under pressure from the hard-line religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox elements in his own municipal coalition to oppose the project, while the planning committee in the municipal council had a majority opposing the renovations.
Responsibility for authorizing the plans was then passed to the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, but the Jerusalem Municipal Council’s legal representative said in a hearing the council opposed the project for various legal reasons, adding that Lion himself was in agreement with this opposition.
Lion’s office declined to respond to a request for comment as to the basis of his opposition.
A source in his coalition told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that Lion, who was elected by ultra-Orthodox votes, had opposed the project due to his political dependence on the ultra-Orthodox and because there was no majority in the municipal council to approve the plans anyway.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, blamed Netanyahu, however, asserting that if the prime minister was committed to the project he would ensure it gets carried out and brought to a vote in the regional planning committee.
The Masorti movement says it conducts some 1,200 bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian prayer section every year, besides prayer services and other religious events, which bring 100,000 worshipers to the site.
Hess said it was “precisely because the prayer site has proved popular with the general public,” that elements in the government have sought to block the renovations.
“This is neglect, contempt, and a retreat from all commitments, even written ones. This is a disgrace,” said Hess.
“I am optimistic, however, because history is on our side and also because there is nothing more Israeli and authentic than what we offer, bar and bat mitzvahs in a family setting without a partition.”
Hess said he nevertheless called on Netanyahu to fulfill his commitments “and turn this site into a symbol of unity instead of a permanent place for argument.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the lack of progress in the planned renovation.