For nearly three decades, gender equality advocates fought – at times, literally – for the right of women to pray alongside men at the Western Wall, a famous prayer site in Israel.
Now, the Israeli government has finally approved the creation of a mixed-sex plaza at the Wall, one of the last vestiges of the Temple Mount and the holiest site for Jewish prayer. In the past, there had been a small section designated for women, but most religious rites took place at the men’s section as dictated by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.
Thousands of people around the world go to the Western Wall everyday. International dignitaries who have visited include President Barack Obama, Madonna, and Pope Francis.
Railing against the rules of governance that prohibit women and men praying together, the organization Women of the Wall has held monthly protests at the site in Jerusalem’s Old City for the past 27 years, often resulting in scuffles with the police and arrests.
“By approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality and autonomy at the Kotel [the Western Wall] and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel,” Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce told The Guardian.
She said the plan, approved by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, was a “revolution for women and Jewish pluralism in Israel.”
In the decision approved by a 15-to-5 vote, an old archaeological site at the Wall will be constructed into a plaza.
"I know this is a sensitive topic, but I think it is an appropriate solution, a creative solution," Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday's Cabinet meeting.
Since 2013, there has been a temporary mixed-gender area as a compromise sanctioned by Mr. Netanyahu to resolve the ongoing dispute. Under the new plan, this temporary area will be doubled in size and made permanent. Projected to cost about $9 million, the plaza will be able to accommodate 1,200 worshippers and be officially registered in Israel’s Law of Holy Sites.
Orthodox and nationalist members of the cabinet were not happy about the decision, which some see as Netanyahu’s attempt to win over American support for Israel. Uri Ariel, a hard-line Cabinet minister from the Orthodox-leaning Jewish Home party, is among those who oppose the initiative.
It "gives standing to the Reform. Their intention is to create conflict and dispute. It's not appropriate. The Western Wall is a place of unity," Ariel said on Israeli Army Radio.
But the historic decision is lauded by liberal streams of Judaism, popular among Jewish populations outside of Israel, as well as the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz.
“For decades, Israel has given full religious authority at the Kotel to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. That is about to change,” said Rabbis Noa Sattah and Gilad Kariv, of the Israel Religious Action Centre and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, in a statement.
“This landmark decision gives expression to a fundamental truth: there is more than one way to be Jewish. There is more than one way to pray. There is more than one way to connect to Jewish traditions and identity,” they added.