JERUSALEM – A senior ultra-Orthodox Israeli lawmaker on Tuesday dismissed the protestations of liberal Jews over alternative access to Jerusalem's Western Wall as provocations, saying they don't even believe in the sanctity of the site.
Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of the Shas party said worship practices at the site — a retaining wall of the compound where the biblical Jewish temples once stood — have been in place for centuries and not everyone can "come and change the rules."
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have canceled meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest his government's decision to scrap plans for an expanded mixed-gender prayer area. They're warning of an unprecedented crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over the issue.
"The Western Wall doesn't interest Reform Jews. They don't believe in the Holy Temple," Cohen told Israel's Army Radio, expressing a view that many Reform Jews would take issue with.
Most American Jews belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities, who question their faith and practices.
Sunday's Cabinet decision touched a raw nerve and sparked a rare display of public anger from American Jewish groups, who hinted the move could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel. Ultra-Orthodox leaders in turn ramped up their criticism and said diaspora Jews would have no say in how religion was conducted in Israel.
The plan to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall was reached in January 2016, after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and Israeli authorities. It was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.
But the program was never implemented, as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections. The about face, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, provoked the ire of liberal Jews.
Netanyahu's office tried to deflect some of the criticism, noting that there are already arrangements for egalitarian prayer and saying that construction to expand that area would continue. The Western Wall, or Kotel, is the holiest site where Jews can pray, and its main plaza is divided into separate men's and women's prayer sections. Those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed.
Under the plan, the small egalitarian area would be expanded and receive a more central entrance alongside entrances to the current male and female prayer sites.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also oversees diaspora affairs, said the crisis was ill-timed and he was having intense negotiations to resolve it.
"The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face by the Israel government and that they are apparently no longer welcome here. Of course this isn't true," he said. "Mistakes were made regarding timing and the way things were done. Additionally there is an apparent campaign of misinformation claiming the Kotel is being closed to Diaspora Jews and that the status of conversions is being changed. This is false."
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces, burials and conversions.
The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation. It resists any inroads from liberals, who it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.
The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to official state recognition and having a say in religious practices.