The Israeli government froze a long-overdue plan to open a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall, a major policy reversal that is likely to upset liberal streams of Judaism that represent most Jews in the United States.
Israel had approved the plan in January 2016 to officially recognize a special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — the holiest site where Jews can pray — a compromise reached after years of negotiations between Israeli and American Jewish leaders and Israeli authorities. It was seen as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.
But the plan was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections to the decision after they had initially endorsed it. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections.
Netanyahu, trying to placate both his coalition partners and wealthy liberal Jewish donors, had promised the new $9 million plaza for mixed-gender prayer would be established. On Sunday, he ordered top aides to formulate a new plan but said little more. In another controversial decision his government promoted a bill to maintain the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions.
Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall group that has pioneered egalitarian access to the wall, called the government decision an "outrage."
"I think it shows cowardice. For two years we negotiated in good faith with the government," she told The Associated Press. "And then today they decide that it is null and void, that they're not going to implement it, that equality is out the window."
Earlier in the day, her group held its weekly prayers at the site and was harassed by ultra-Orthodox worshippers.
American Jews, who have long lamented that Israel should be as accepting of their religious practices as they are of their financial support, have been pushing for the new payer area. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has warned that if the deal did not go through it would lead to a rupture with North American Jewry.
The liberal Jewish groups had accused Netanyahu of delaying implementation because of pressure from the two ultra-Orthodox parties that maintain his narrow coalition. They have already petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to implement the decision and still hold out hope it will overturn it.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.
Arieh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he was pleased the government blocked a plan that would have harmed the "sanctity of the site."
"Preserving the status quo of the Western Wall reflects the will of most of the people," he said. "There is no room there for destructive factions whose only purpose is to desecrate the site."
The liberal streams have made strides in recent years, establishing synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens, and Israel's secular majority has become more accepting. But they still have very little political backing, and authorities have generally tended to regard them as a somewhat alien offshoot imported from North America that does not mesh with how religion is typically practiced in Israel.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of the few dissenting votes, said freezing the plan "represented a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, to various Jewish communities and to the relations between Israel and the Jewish diaspora."