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Israeli government suspends mixed-prayer plan at the Western Wall

JERUSALEM (RNS) The move is likely to improve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's relations with ultra-Orthodox parties in his ruling coalition.

Anat Hoffman (second from left in foreground), chair of Women of the Wall, an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox monopoly over rites at the Western Wall, holds a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer at the site on Nov. 2, 2016. The Western Wall is Judaism's holiest prayer site. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Michal Fattal

JERUSALEM (RNS) Reform and Conservative Jews expressed outrage after the Israeli government suspended plans to create a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall.

The decision, reached at a cabinet meeting Sunday (June 25), is likely to improve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relations with ultra-Orthodox parties in his ruling coalition.

However, it went against a 2016 compromise agreement that the government reached with the Reform and Conservative movements, which have large followings outside Israel, as well as with the feminist group Women of the Wall that would have, for the first time, officially recognized the rights of liberal Jews in Israel.

Netanyahu had already delayed implementation of the agreement by almost a year and a half out of fears that ultra-Orthodox parliament members would abandon his governing coalition and bring down his government.

Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall called it “a terrible day for women in Israel” and accused the government of “kowtowing to a handful of religious extremists.”

“(T)he prime minister with zero leadership and zero backbone is caving to the most extreme members of Israeli society,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the Times of Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the newspaper: “To hear the government of Israel make a statement today that the rights of non-Orthodox Jews don’t matter is deeply distressing.”

The wall is revered as a vestige of Judaism’s two ancient temples and access to it is segregated by gender. Most religious rites take place in the men’s section in accordance with centuries-old Orthodox standards that hold sway in Israel.

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent. Material from Reuters was used in this report)

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