Temporary prayer site incites Kotel controversy

Members of Women of the Wall are pictured during evening prayers at the start of a 24-hour sit-in at the Western Wall in protest against an impending Israeli plan to ban the group from pray-ing as they see fit at the holy site. The plan proposes a 400-square-metre space for egalitarian worship, with no rabbini-cal supervision, at Robinson’s Arch, near the Western Wall. Aug. 25. [Miriam Al-ster/Flash90 photo]

JERUSALEM — A temporary platform for non-Orthodox prayer was built at Robinson’s Arch adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, Israeli government minister Naftali Bennett said.

According to a statement Sunday from Bennett’s office, the platform is meant “as an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”

The announcement from Bennett, the minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, came amid mixed messages from government officials.

His statement said the platform was built “in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s Office and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky,” who was tasked late last year by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formulate a compromise solution about egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

But while Sharansky endorsed the temporary platform as “a gesture of goodwill,” the Prime Minister’s Office sent a statement saying “there is no new government decision regarding prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.”

The platform – which at 400-square-metres, can hold 450 people – does not reach the Western Wall itself, though a ramp leads to a smaller area adjacent to the wall. It will include Torah scrolls, prayer books and prayer shawls, and be open free at all hours.

In his statement, Bennett said he hopes to define the existing Western Wall Plaza as a space restricted to Orthodox prayer. A legal statute to that effect would require the approval of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been at odds with Bennett on the issue.

Protests over the high-profile arrests of female worshipers participating in the monthly Rosh Chodesh service of the Women of the Wall prayer group at the holy site led Netanyahu to tap Sharansky to come up with a compromise. Sharansky intends to release the plan in the coming days.

Women of the Wall said the platform plan “is the very definition of separate, and not nearly close to equal.”

“The stage is in no way equal topographically or geographically to the original plaza, nor does it come close to the Wall itself, as it stands to the back of the Robinson’s Arch area,” Shira Pruce of Women of the Wall said in a statement.”

Pruce said the platform “provides an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution silencing women at the Western Wall” and the group “demand[s] equal rights for women to pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall.”

Reports circulated that Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit would release a compromise plan for the Western Wall on Sunday, but no plan was released.

Under Sharansky’s plan, first reported in April, the existing egalitarian section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and a unified entrance would be built leading to the wall’s traditional and egalitarian sections.

The months since Sharansky introduced the plan have seen increased haredi Orthodox protests of Women of the Wall. In addition, a judge determined in April that the group’s activities do not contravene the law. Since then, none of the women has been arrested during the Rosh Chodesh service.