Controversial Knesset Bill Denounced by Jewish Agency, Jewish Federations

A bill to prevent non-Orthodox public prayer at the Western Wall was submitted to the Knesset and was immediately denounced by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Jewish Federations of North America.

Under the measure submitted, the Western Wall site would be placed under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate and be governed by the religious practice approved by the Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s rabbinic courts, which in practice is Orthodox.

A fine of some $2,500 or a six-month prison sentence would be levied on participants in egalitarian prayer services or on women who use a tallit or tefillin.

Lawmakers from the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party and the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party are backing the bill, along with three members of the right-wing Jewish Home party and two from the ruling Likud party.
The bill would prohibit any ceremony “that is not held according to local custom, that offends the feelings of the worshipers in the Holy place.” It also would bar “an act that could disturb the worshippers with their prayer; mixed prayers of men and women” in any area of the Western Wall plaza. That would include “a ceremony in the Women’s section that includes taking out the Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing on shofars, and wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries.”

Passage of the bill would torpedo the agreement reached in January 2016 for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall negotiated by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government.  The agreement was endorsed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel.  But subsequent implementation was met with resistance and intransigence, including from some who initially expressed support.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who led the negotiations on the egalitarian measure along with outgoing Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, slammed the new proposal.

“This bill makes a mockery of all the efforts made by recent governments to ensure that the Western Wall is a place that unites, rather than divides, the Jewish people,” Sharansky said in a statement. “This bill’s passage would have grave consequences for the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Based on the Prime Minister’s strong personal commitment to strengthening the Israel-Diaspora relationship, it is my fervent hope that this damaging bill will be summarily dismissed by a majority of the coalition and of the Knesset.”

Under the January agreement, which was approved by the Cabinet, the egalitarian section of the wall near Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and placed under the authority of a pluralist committee. The plan called for solidifying haredi Orthodox control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.

“This bill is far from becoming law and I trust that calmer heads will prevail in the Knesset. The January 2016 agreement was landmark and respected the reality that multiple, legitimate expressions of Judaism should have access to Judaism’s holiest site,” commented Mark L. Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. “It is unfortunate that Knesset politics are delaying the agreement that will enable respectful accommodation at the Kotel.”
Material from JTA was used in this report.​ 


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