As an excellent backgrounder in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz explains, there was a time when men and women could pray together in front of the Western Wall, considered to be the second holiest site in Judaism, the first being the Temple Mount itself.
Also known as the Wall of Lamentations, it was never part of the Temple Mount, but believed to be a remnant of the retaining wall that supported the esplanade built by King Herod in the first century B.C., holding up his reconstruction of the Second Temple. Since east Jerusalem was among territories captured by Israeli forces in the June 1967 war, it has become the world’s foremost destination for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer.
The conflict arose because members of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations, mainly in the U.S. and Canada, campaigned successfully for egalitarianprayer space, where women and men share equally in the
spiritual experience as they do in temples and synagogues at home.
At the end of January last year, the Israeli government approved a plan for such a space in the Robinson’s Arch area and Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox adherents celebrated. Given the unfortunate reality of Israeli politics, the Netanyahu government is dependent on the support of Ultra-Orthodox parties to maintain power: They
threatened, he caved, and dismissed the compromise plan for the egalitarian prayer space.
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The stranglehold of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities over Israeli government decisions, because they often hold the balance of power, is one of the most negative consequences of the country’s proportional representation political system. This enables Orthodox control over marriage and divorce.
Now the outmoded practice of enforcing gender separation at a revered and popular religious site is being restored. The net effect is to resume a practice that is out of keeping with the progressive branches of Judaism, proponents of which also happen to be among the most fervent advocates of restarting the frozen peace process.
This craven political move by the Netanyahu government can only further alienate North American Jews and their support for an Israel that is a beacon among the nations. As Israeli consul general in Toronto Gail Baram reported to the Israeli foreign ministry, quoted in Ha’aretz: “We are receiving repeated warnings that these decisions will worsen the existing trend of growing and deepening alienation toward Israel among the younger generation.”