Israel cancels landmark plan for Western Wall mixed prayer

Jewish women pray at the women's section of the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem on May 16, 2017.
Jewish women pray at the women's section of the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem on May 16, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's government on Sunday (June 25) cancelled a landmark deal to create a space for women and men to pray together at the Western Wall, angering activists who have fought for the change for years.

Women and men currently must pray separately at Jerusalem's Western Wall under strict interpretation of Jewish law.

The deal to alter rules at one of Judaism's holiest sites was called off following pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism said on Sunday that Netanyahu had accepted their position to "freeze" the plan, a move that "reflects the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall's sanctity and status".

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Progressive Jewish activists had long sought to change the rule in the face of strong opposition from the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which oversees religious activity at the Western Wall.

 

In what was hailed a "historic" deal, Israel's cabinet had in January 2016 approved a plan to create a third section at the Western Wall where women and men would be allowed to pray together.

The new prayer section would not have been under the control of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which opposed it and managed to prevent its implementation until this point.

Sunday's vote by the cabinet effectively cancelled the deal.

The decision was a "de-facto cancellation of the plan," the parties said in a joint statement, noting it could only be changed by a further government decision.

The freeze was welcomed by Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau as an amendment to the earlier "mistaken" decision, while critics described it as a "capitulation" that would damage ties with the Jewish world beyond Israel, most of which is not Orthodox.

A key figure in crafting the compromise plan to create the mixed prayer space expressed his "deep disappointment" at Sunday's decision to cancel it.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental agency that works to bring Jewish immigrants to Israel, said the move would "make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult".

Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which has pushed to change rules at the holy site for years, called it "a terrible day for women in Israel when the PM sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists".

The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray.

It is venerated by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.