TEL AVIV, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government faced growing international criticism Wednesday after halting a project that would have allowed men and women to pray together at one of Judaism's holiest sites.
The move was a concession to right-wing Orthodox politicians in the country’s governing coalition, but has caused a schism with Jewish communities outside of Israel, particularly in the U.S.
It also comes as journalists, human rights groups and artists in Israel have come under fire from Netanyahu’s government for their opposition to its policies. In recent years, the prime minister has increasingly tried to pressure human rights groups critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
"What the government is doing is not only weakening Israel internally, but also weakening Israel with its relationship with the world, with the world of democracies," said Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
"The lack of understanding, or the opposite of understanding, by this government is to some extent a surprise for me. If I think of democracy in the richer concept, if we care for human rights, the rights of minorities, the rule of law, I am concerned."
In January 2016,the Israeli government announced it would build a new area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to enable men and women to pray side by side — a proposal strongly supported by the Reform and Conservative movements, whose supporters are more numerous in the U.S. than Israel.
The government also said that two other prayer areas would remain segregated. But the suggestion of mixed prayer at Judaism’s holiest site is considered an affront by right-wing Orthodox Jews who strictly interpret Jewish law.
Orthodox Jews separate men and women during prayer services led by men. However, Conservative and Reform Jews have mixed seating and women are often involved in leading the service.
“The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face by the [Israeli] government and that they are apparently no longer welcome here,” said Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, adding that the government has held marathon meetings with the heads of U.S. Jewish communities currently in Israel.
“Of course this isn't true," he added. "The Jews of the U.S. are welcomed and loved, they are our brothers. But mistakes were made regarding timing and the way things were done. This is why, over the next day, we will hold a series of meetings to listen to the leaders of Diaspora Communities and reach understanding allowing us to end this crisis."
It is the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle in Israel between the religious establishment and those who champion more liberal and secular values, and comes as Netanyahu's fragile coalition necessitates significant concessions to his right-wing backers.
A separate decision by a ministerial committee to advance a bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate power over Jewish conversion in Israel added to the fire. The Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of conversions by Conservative or Reform rabbis.
“I feel like someone who baked something phenomenal and wonderful for three years and was ready to serve it to guests and suddenly was told that that the dish is going into the deep freezer and never come out again,” said Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, a feminist organization that had been leading the fight for the space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“The government froze the fruit of three years of negotiations. These negotiations were reached by listening to each other, mutual understanding… The [prime minister] initiated the negotiations and promised us and inspired us and now in one quick swoop without any warning stopped it all.”
The board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities around the world, held a special meeting at the Knesset on Tuesday and called off its dinner with Netanyahu on Monday night.
The special meeting came after the agency’s director, Natan Sharansky, noted in a Facebook post that the “retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
In the United States, UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein said the organization was “outraged” by the Israeli government’s decisions.
Netanyahu reacted sharply to the criticism, saying that it’s important to him “that every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall.”
The statement also insisted that dialogue to reach a solution is ongoing and that directives to encourage prayer at the wall had gone unnoticed amidst the commotion, including the expediting of work at an already separate section of the wall where Reform and Conservative Jews often hold services.
When President Donald Trump visited the Western Wall last month he paid his respects at the men's section of the wall, while his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka did so at the women's section.