Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Israel Allows Liberal Prayer at Western Wall in Nod to Diaspora

  • Decision ends 25-year campaign for non-Orthodox worship site
  • Government plans to renovate site at Jerusalem's Western Wall

Israel’s cabinet approved the creation of a permanent space for non-Orthodox prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, under pressure from American Jewry and liberal Jewish denominations that have long chafed at Orthodox control of the holy site.

The space near the main prayer plaza abutting the wall will allow for practices frowned upon by Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, such as women and men praying together without a partition. Women will also be allowed to lead services and read from the Jewish holy book known as the Torah, according to the decision approved by the cabinet.

The campaign for pluralistic worship has been going on for 25 years, led by a group known as Women of the Wall. The Masorti Movement, known abroad as the Conservative movement, said the cabinet’s decision is an “historic moment” that “brings us measurably closer to the simple, basic fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said ahead of the vote that the proposal was “fair and creative.” The ultra-Orthodox minister of religious services, David Azoulay, has to sign off on the decision, which he opposes. He said in an interview with Israel Radio that he would consult with religious sages from his Shas party before deciding how to proceed.

Site Renovations

The government is to allot millions of dollars to renovate the pluralistic worship area, where liberal groups have been allowed to pray since 2000. Sunday’s decision puts the site on an equal footing with the existing plaza where Orthodox practices hold sway, and follows growing tensions with U.S. Jews, the largest Jewish population outside Israel, who are mostly affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements that feel disenfranchised in Israel.

Israeli officials who back greater pluralism see it as a way to shore up weakened support among U.S. Jews at a time when Israel faces increasing international isolation over its policies toward the Palestinians.

Uri Regev, director of Hiddush - Freedom of Religion for Israel Inc., said the achievement was liable to undermine efforts to loosen the Orthodox rabbinate’s lock on other areas of Jewish life, such as marriage, conversion and burial.

“This decision will enable Prime Minister Netanyahu to say he is living up to his promise to the Jewish Federation of North America to enable any Jew to feel at home in Israel,” Regev said. “It will be a used as a fig leaf to cover for real major existential issues of religion and state that are not being addressed.”

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