Justice Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), who heads the Cabinet Committee on Legislation, assured on Thursday that a proposed Shas bill will not be on the committee’s agenda when it meets on Sunday. The bill lays out rules of conduct for the Western Wall Plaza, including jail time and a fine for those who violate it and drew outrage from all sides of the political landscape.
Likud chairman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement Thursday afternoon reassuring the public of the maintenance of the status quo at the site: “The status quo at the Kotel, which is precious to the entire nation of Israel, will continue to be as it is today. I spoke with my colleagues, the party chairmen, and everyone can agree that the law isn’t going to come to a vote right now,” he said.
The proposed bill
According to the bill, which was published in several Israeli news outlets, there will be a ban on wearing clothes that don’t honor the holy nature of the site, holding any religious ceremony that is not according to “the local custom” of the site and “hurt the feelings of the worshipers,” violate Shabbat, play musical instruments, play music, or sing pieces not approved and provide religious services that aren’t under the auspices of the “supervisor” of the site.
Additionally, forbidden at the Kotel will be mixed prayer services for men and women together, and, inside the women’s section, there will be a ban to conduct ceremonies that include taking out a Torah scroll and reading from it, blowing the shofar or wearing tefillin.
“Even if it were to come to a vote,” he added, “the clauses about criminal consequences for inappropriate attire or musical instruments that were written 40 years ago would not have been included.”
Shas chairman Aryeh Deri was barred by the Supreme Court from serving as the country’s health and interior minister due to his criminal convictions. The bill, dubbed the ‘Kotel Law’, was expected to be voted on in the upcoming meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Legislation on Sunday. The Likud, Israel’s largest party and Shas’ coalition partner, was blindsided by the proposal, as it was not supposed to be on the committee’s agenda at all, Ynet reported.
The meeting is set to take place before a hearing at the Supreme Court on Wednesday on the issue of implementation of the Kotel Compromise, which has since been canceled by the government. It was frozen in 2017, and, if implemented, would see the creation of an egalitarian prayer section next to the separate women’s and men’s sections.
The bill also proposes that the custom at the Western Wall will be according to the Chief Rabbinate Council and the Rabbi of the Western Wall. Anyone who violates these instructions risks removal from the premises and imprisonment for six months or a fine of NIS 10,000.
“In the 50 years since the liberation of the Kotel, there has been no move to codify its holy nature into law, something that has led, from time to time, to values that are holy to the Jewish people taking a hit. That is why this bill proposes codifying policies that will safeguard prayer practices at the site,” the text reads.
The proposed bill drew outrage across the political spectrum, including from the Right. National Unity chairman Benny Gantz tweeted, “There is not a single Jewish person, from any denomination, that can claim ownership over the holiest site in Judaism. The Kotel belongs to all of us, religious and secular, Right and Left, and we need to maintain it as a unifying force for our people.”
Gantz called on Netanyahu to “leave politics out of our holiest site; don’t tear the Kotel away from the Jewish people.”
Sports and Culture Minister Miki Zohar, from the Likud, criticized the proposed bill as well. He tweeted that the Western Wall “belongs to the entire Jewish nation and is equally holy to all; there is no need for laws to sanctify the site.”
Responses from lawmakers and Women of the Wall
MK Meirav Cohen (Yesh Atid) responded to the proposed bill on Twitter, saying: “What stupidity! How much baseless hatred will be generated following such a forceful play of religious coercion. It will turn the Western Wall from a place that brings together into a symbol of the struggles between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else.
“Obviously, it will achieve the opposite result and invite provocations. What, is there no longer room for mutual respect? Deri is confused if he thought the Western Wall belonged to his father.”
“The real name of the bill should be: ‘Have you murdered and also inherited?'” Reform Rabbi MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) said in response to the bill, quoting from the book of Kings. “The ultra-Orthodox politicians are thwarting the implementation of the historic compromise outline at the Western Wall and are also demanding that the Chief Rabbinate be given a predatory monopoly on this holy site.”
Kariv stressed that “if Netanyahu wants to see pictures of women thrown into the jail in the state of the Jewish people, because they prayed with a prayer shawl, he is welcome to advance this scandalous bill.”
Women of the Wall (WoW) responded to the proposed bill: “Members of WoW will continue to pray in their own way, as they have done for the past three decades.” They stressed that “this is a time of emergency for everyone who values a Jewish and democratic Israel, for everyone who sees an important value in preserving the Kotel as the home of the entire Jewish people.
“The fact that the Israeli government intends to outlaw the prayer of WoW and prohibit millions of Jewish men and women from praying in their own way at the Western Wall – is a scandal and we will not stand by it.”
Earlier this week, Deputy Minister Avi Maoz (Noam Party) spoke about the situation at the Kotel from a legal perspective.
“The Supreme Court was asked to intervene in the order of prayer at the Western Wall,” he said of the hearing expected next week. “In my eyes, this is likened to a situation where a petition would be submitted to the Supreme Court by Muslims who [theoretically] demand that a place be set aside in Al-Aqsa Mosque for prayer with shoes. How conceivable would it be that the Supreme Court would intervene in this type of request?”
“It is unthinkable that the Supreme Court would intervene in these types of cases,” Maoz said of religious issues. “Just as the Waqf manages the prayers at Temple Mount, the Chief Rabbinate manages the prayers at our holy sites.” He concluded by saying that “I demand from the Supreme Court that it doesn’t intervene”
MK Moshe (Kinley) Tur-Paz (Yesh Atid) said that this bill is “the best way to make sure that no Jew, except the ultra-Orthodox, will want to come to pray at the Western Wall.” He added that “the government of Israel, in the Jewish state, alienates Jews from their Judaism – with no shame.”
MK Ze’ev Elkin, chairman of the State Camp faction, called the proposed bill the “Sleeves Law,” and tweeted that “dressing immodestly at the Western Wall, according to the criteria of the Rabbi of the Kotel’s inspectors, bringing musical instruments [to the Kotel], a ceremony not according to the rabbi’s instructions – All of which can cause six months in prison?” He asked and concluded: “Did you freak out?”
“This legislation means one thing: the Western Wall is no longer everyone’s,” said Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. “The extremist government continues to tear the people of Israel apart. They will not decide for us who is more Jewish and who is less. If this legislation passes, Israel will no longer be a free country. Instead of a symbol of unity, the Western Wall will become a symbol of the oppression of women, discrimination against the secular, and the dissolution of our alliance with world Jewry.”
“The proposed law is shameful and disgraceful and should be removed immediately,” the Reform Movement said in response. “Once again, the ultra-Orthodox are dictating the conduct in the holiest place for every Jew. It seems that the Israeli government has forgotten that the State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people.”The Kotel cannot be run as an ultra-orthodox synagogue. An equal place must be given within its framework to men and women and to all the [religious] streams of the Jewish people.”
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.