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Israeli government approves mixed-gender prayer area at Western Wall

Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Tuesday April 21, 2015
Feminist group advocating women's rights for prayer at Western Wall hail decision

The Israeli government approved the expansion of a mixed-gender, non-Orthodox prayer section at Jerusalem's Western Wall in a Cabinet meeting Sunday.

The new area, called Azarat Yisrael, is to be located in the Western Wall plaza’s southernmost corner underneath Robinson’s Arch, which has already been frequently used for egalitarian prayer services.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposal "a compromise on this delicate issue in a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish People. While I know that this is a delicate issue, I think that this is a fair and creative solution."

The Women of the Wall group, which fights for women's rights to pray at Judaism's holiest accessible site, hailed the cabinet decision.

“Revolution for Women and Jewish Pluralism in Israel: Government approves Mendelblit Plan for a third, pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall," the group wrote on its Facebook page.

"In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality and autonomy at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel,” it wrote.

Women of the Wall

The plan is likely to spark further controversy, as several groups declared their opposition to the cabinet decision.

 The head of the Knesset Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, called Reform Jews "clowns."

"The Reform are a group of clowns stabbing the holy Torah," he said according to the Walla news website. "We will never ever recognize this group of clowns, not at the Western Wall, nor anywhere else."

JTA reported Thursday that Moshe Gafni, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, plans to use his position as head of the Knesset Finance Committee to block funding for the plan.

Ahead of the vote, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, from the right-wing Bayit Yehudi, said that he intended to oppose the plan, saying it was "unnecessary and hurts the Jewish tradition, which is important to all of us. The reform Jews from Israel, and mostly from abroad, are intentionally harming the values we hold dear, and allowing them into the Western Wall (on its southern side) will offend traditional Israeli citizens."

Menahem Kahana/AFP

Original Women of the Wall, a group which broke away from the Women of the Wall group over internal strife, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that it will not consider itself bound by any agreement between WoW and the government, and will continue to hold prayer services at the Western Wall.

“If you look at the charter of WOW from 20 years ago it talks of prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall. We are thrilled if other groups want to pray at the Robinson’s Arch site, but that is not what we will do,” Cheryl Birkner Mack, a leading member of OWOW, told The Jerusalem Post.

Women of the Wall have run afoul of the Orthodox establishment in recent years by wearing prayer shawls and donning other ritual garb at the wall. Some have been arrested for disturbing the public order.


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