Middle East

Jewish group cancels Netanyahu dinner over Western Wall decision

File photo taken on 16 May 2017 showing Jewish women praying at the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem Image copyright AFP
Image caption Women and men must pray in separate areas at the main section of the Western Wall

A leading Israeli Jewish group has cancelled a gala dinner with Israel's PM after his government froze plans to upgrade a mixed-gender area for prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The board of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, said it "deplored" the move.

It also rebuked ministers for backing a controversial conversions law.

Both decisions were taken in response to pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties in Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the biblical Jewish temples once stood, and is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism.

Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit the wall to pray. It is administered by the Orthodox rabbinate and, in accordance with Orthodox tradition, men and women must pray in separate areas.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2016 that he wanted "one wall for one people"

For years the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which have large followings outside Israel, campaigned for a mixed-gender prayer space.

Since 2013, a temporary prayer area for mixed worship was opened at the southern end of the wall and in 2016, Mr Netanyahu's cabinet voted in favour of plans to upgrade it.

But after two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition raised objections to the plans, ministers voted at a meeting on Sunday to suspend their implementation.

The parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, said the decision reflected "the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall's sanctity and status".

Later, a ministerial committee also voted to advance a bill that would grant the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over Jewish conversion in Israel.

Under the proposed legislation, the state would no longer be able to recognise conversions carried out by independent Orthodox rabbinical courts and would be prevented from recognising non-Orthodox conversions in the future. Critics said it could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ultra-Orthodox parties said they wanted to safeguard the Western Wall's "sanctity and status"

On Monday morning, the Jewish Agency's board of governors announced that it had cancelled a scheduled dinner with Mr Netanyahu in light of both decisions.

The board later passed a resolution warning that the "dangerous and damaging steps" had a "deep potential to divide the Jewish people".

"We call upon the government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly," it added.

The United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York said the Israeli government's actions "would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home".

Women of the Wall (WOW), a liberal group that campaigns for the right of women to perform the same prayer rituals as Orthodox men there, said Sunday had been a "terrible day for women in Israel" and accused Mr Netanyahu of "kow-towing to a handful of religious extremists".

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman later issued a statement stressing that it was important to Mr Netanyahu that "every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall" and that he had issued three directives on Sunday which had "gone unnoticed".

"First, the prime minister instructed that work to prepare the southern plaza be expedited so that Jews from all streams may pray at the Western Wall. Second, that Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there - as they are able to do today. Third, the prime minister instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and me to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution," the statement said.

"I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts."