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Israel rejects mixed-gender prayer at Western Wall

By
Allen Cone
Women pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
Women pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

June 26 (UPI) -- Israel's government has rejected a plan to allow mixed-gender services at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem.

The decision Sunday was condemned by Reform and Conservative Jewish groups worldwide and the Jewish Agency, which one day later canceled a gala event planned for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In a statement Monday, the prime minister's office said a new compromise would be sought. Spearheading these efforts would be Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, of Netanyahu's Likud party, and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman.

"The prime minister's decision came from the realization that over the last year and a half nothing has progressed with this plan, so another solution needs to be found," Hanegbi said.

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The statement also said infrastructure work would begin on the southern expanse of the Western Wall in preparation for a new plan.

Only two Cabinet members, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, voted against the move.

In January 2016, the Cabinet approved a plan for permanent egalitarian prayer at the southern expanse of the Western Wall that was described as "fair and creative solution" by Netanyahu.

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Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews manage the nation's holy Jewish sites. The area for prayer at the Western Wall is divided according to gender. Women can't read aloud from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or sing there.

In Israel, only a small minority are affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements but more than half of American Jews identify themselves as Reform or Conservative, while only about 10 percent observe Orthodox practices, according to a poll by Pew Research Center published in March 2016.

Jerusalem Post's editor in chief, Yaakov Katz, wrote: "Sunday will go down in history as a shameful day for the state of Israel, another nail in the coffin of Israel's failing relationship with Diaspora Jewry."

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"Netanyahu's office made sure to issue a statement that Sunday's Cabinet decision was not to cancel the previous deal but merely to freeze it. This is a sham," Katz wrote. "The deal had already been frozen for the last 18 months and wasn't moving forward. By taking the decision Sunday, Netanyahu is simply signaling to Diaspora Jewry that at the end of the day, his political survival is more important than Israeli-Diaspora relations."

Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall feminist group, described Netanyahu's decision as "shameful."

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"It's a terrible day for women in Israel when the prime minister sacrifices their rights while kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists, who want to enforce their religious customs while intentionally violating the rights of the majority of the Jewish world," she said.

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In September, Women of the Wall and Israel's Reform and Conservative movements filed a legal petition to force the government to divide the southern plaza.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement: "Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, 'one wall for one people.' "

Since 2000, non-Orthodox Jews have held mixed prayer services past the southern end of the Western Wall.

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