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JERUSALEM – The rabbi of Judaism's holiest prayer site on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to establish a section where men and women can worship together, a groundbreaking motion that could end a decades-old fight against an Orthodox monopoly of the area.
The fight over the Western Wall has reached a fever pitch in recent months, after police arrested female worshippers who prayed at the site wearing religious garments and leading prayers — acts that Orthodox Judaism permits for men only.
The arrests caused an uproar in Israel and among liberal Jewish leaders in the United States, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to instruct the semi-governmental Jewish Agency to devise a plan that would permit non-Orthodox forms of worship at the holy site.
The Western Wall's rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovich, told Army Radio Wednesday that while he dislikes non-Orthodox prayer, he would tolerate it in a separate section in order to end intra-Jewish fighting at the site.
"I want everyone to pray according to Orthodox Jewish religious law, but I don't interfere," said Rabinovich, who is Orthodox. "If these things can be done at the Western Wall without hurting others, and this can bring about compromise and serenity, I don't object."
The Western Wall is Judaism's most revered prayer site because it is a remnant of the biblical Jewish temple compound. Worship at the site is administered according to Orthodox Jewish religious custom: the men's section and smaller women's section are separated by a divider, and women are not allowed to lead prayer groups or wear prayer shawls, skullcaps or phylacteries — small boxes strapped to the head and arms during prayer.
The pluralistic Reform and Conservative movements, which allow mixed prayer and female rabbis, have long campaigned for recognition in Israel. The two groups however are largely marginalized in the Jewish state despite being popular overseas, especially in the United States. The emerging plan could represent a significant accomplishment by these liberal streams of Judaism.
Under the plan, unveiled by the Jewish Agency announced on Tuesday, Israel would create a permanent area for mixed-gender and women-led prayer next to a section of the Western Wall that mainly serves as an archaeological site. Currently, liberal Jewish worship is permitted in the area only during limited hours. Under the proposed plan, a platform would be erected to expand the area and allow liberal prayer there 24 hours a day, like the Orthodox section of the site.
The two Jewish prayer sections would be separated by the large wooden ramp that leads to the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque compound, a site also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount — another reminder of the sensitive, inextricable mesh of religious claims to the area.
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, said he had presented the proposal to Israeli lawmakers and Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States, and hoped it would be accepted.
"One Western Wall for one Jewish people," said Sharansky, a one-time political prisoner in the former Soviet Union. He expressed his hope that the site "will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife."
The plan will be presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and must be approved by Israel's government before it is implemented. Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment.
Women of the Wall, a liberal Jewish women's group whose members have been arrested in controversial monthly prayer sessions in the current female-only section of the site, cautiously welcomed the proposal.
"The principle is the most important issue here," said Peggy Cidor, a board member of Women of the Wall. "The most important thing for us is that someone has at last understood that this cannot continue."