Aiming to toss the Western Wall agreement out into the dustbin of history.

Shas Party proposes a bill to outlaw mixed prayer at Western Wall

The Shas party declared on Monday that it would propose a bill that would make it illegal to hold pluralistic prayer services at the Western Wall plaza.

Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri (Shas Party), source: WikipediaMinister Rabbi Aryeh Deri (Shas Party), source: Wikipedia

In the ultra-Orthodox political party’s description of the bill, it said it was meant to prevent actions, including “religious ceremonies,” that “do not fit the custom of the place, which would offend the congregation who pray there.”

Should it pass into law, it would effectively end the negotiated agreement arrived at by the Government, together with the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall after three years of discussions, which resolved to establish an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Robinson's Arch section of the Western Wall, alongside the ultra-Orthodox-controlled traditional plaza.

This most recent volley in the already escalated conflict follows extremely derogatory pronouncements coming from a variety of fundamentalist religious circles, as well as from some Government Coalition politicians eager to avoid the political storm facing the Government over the non-implementation of the agreement, such as MK David Amsalem whose outrageous statements we highlighted in our last newsletter. It also comes very shortly after the murderous threats and graffiti left at the Reform synagogue in Ra'anana.

Shas aims to ensure that the Government's Western Wall agreement is thrown out into the dustbin of history. Anti-Reform/Conservative legislative proposals are nothing new, and Hiddush has written before about the ritual bath (mikva'ot) bill, which was purely intended to void a Supreme Court ruling granting access to Reform and Conservative converts. The fact that the likes of Rabbis Gafni (UTJ) and Deri (Shas) seek to delegitimize non-Orthodox Judaism is sadly to be expected.

The fact that the likes of Rabbis Gafni (UTJ) and Deri (Shas) seek to delegitimize non-Orthodox Judaism is sadly to be expected.

What's less expected is that Israel's non-Haredi leaders buckle under this pressure and go along with legislation that tears the Jewish people apart and sends a dangerous message to Diaspora Jewry: "You are not welcome here." Given the care taken in working out the Western Wall agreement and PM Netanyahu's great pride in achieving it, we may assume that getting the other Government Coalition parties to go along with Shas's initiative, as they did with the mikva'ot, should not be taken for granted. So this leaves us with a query as to why Shas announced this initiative in the first place. A number of possibilities come to mind:

    1. This is a political game Deri is playing to better position his party among the hardline ultra-Orthodox sector.
    2. Even though Minister Deri may not be able to get this initiative approved for fear of mainstream Diaspora retaliation, it will be an effective bargaining chip (more accurately: extortion) for extracting concessions from the Prime Minister in return for dropping it.
    3. The mere fact of putting this extreme legislative initiative on the table increases pressure upon Netanyahu to renege on his commitment to the non-Orthodox movements, Federation world, and Women of the Wall to implement the agreement. This may be intended to help him to explain to them that he cannot deliver on the original agreement, as much as he wants to, and further impress upon them the need to reach a new (less favorable) compromise.

It should also be noted that while Shas and UTJ represent a fundamentalist religious approach, it is usually assumed that these two parties follow a rational decision making process. Essentially, they're likely to ultimately remain in the Government Coalition's warm nest, even if their demands are not met. However, there's really no telling, and there is always the possibility that both ultra-Orthodox parties may feel sufficiently intense internal pressure to actually carry out their occasional threat of breaking up the Coalition. While unlikely, the Western Wall controversy, which has aroused a high level of emotions in the American Jewish community, may cause a similarly high emotions on the ultra-Orthodox side. Given the fragility of PM Netanyahu's Coalition, issues such as the Western Wall may ultimately blow up to the point of bringing down his Government.

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