Fury over Netanyahu U-turn on gender segregation at holy site

Jewish diaspora bodies irate as Israeli government caves to ultra-Orthodox pressure

Jewish women pray at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Jewish women pray at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images


Representatives of Jewish diaspora organisations have reacted furiously after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu caved in to pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and cancelled an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The move comes as a severe blow to the Reform and Conservative movements both in Israel and among the diaspora, who had hailed the January 2016 Western Wall agreement as a historic day of recognition by the Israeli government of their liberal forms of Judaism.

A majority of American Jews, by far the biggest diaspora community, affiliate with the liberal Reform and Conservative movements, but both streams remain marginal in Israel, where almost all observant Jews are either modern Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.

Any attempt to implement the agreement will now need a new cabinet decision – an unlikely scenario as Mr Netanyahu’s coalition includes the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, bitter opponents of the liberal streams of Judaism.

In response to the government decision, a delegation of visiting American Reform Jews cancelled a planned meeting with Mr Netanyahu, saying they had “nothing to talk about”.

The Jewish Agency, which spearheads Jewish immigration to Israel, withdrew a gala dinner invitation to Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem and passed a resolution calling on the government to rescind its decision, saying the move contradicted the spirit of Zionism.

“We deplore the decision which contradicts the vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky and the spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people and the Western Wall as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world,” the agency said. “We declare that we cannot and will not allow this to happen.”

Separate entrances

The 2016 compromise, which was reluctantly endorsed by the orthodox parties, was intended to resolve on ongoing demand by the liberal streams for an area at the Old City Wall where men and women could pray together.

Currently, prayer areas are strictly segregated, with separate entrances for men and women, according to Orthodox tradition. The 2016 compromise , mediated by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, was welcomed by the liberal streams and by the feminist group Women of the Wall, whose members pray every month at the site wearing Jewish prayer shawls and holding a Torah scroll aloft , often provoking insults and violent attacks from Orthodox worshippers.

A senior ultra-Orthodox Knesset member claimed Tuesday Reform Jewry protests were a provocation since they don’t even believe in the sanctity of the site. Deputy finance minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas said worship practices at the site had been in place for centuries and not everyone can “come and change the rules”.