Jews welcome new egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem's Western Wall

A member of the "Women of the Wall" group wearing a prayer shawl and Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments that Orthodox law says only men should don, during a monthly prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.Reuters

Liberal Jews in Britain have welcomed the decision in Israel to establish an "egalitarian" prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the most holy site in the Jewish religion.

After a year-long debate, the Israel cabinet voted to establish a section of the Western Wall, originally a wall of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, for mixed prayers. The Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel and widely regarded as Judaism's most holy site, has until now been strictly segregated with just a small space set aside for women.

The cabinet also voted through an upgrade of the Southern Wall section, also known as Robinson's Arch, and to anchor the agreement in law. The decision was hailed as an historic landmark for Jewish pluralism and non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

According to the proposed agreement, a new prayer area will be set up along the wall south of the current prayer area.

This section will be officially registered in Israel's Law of Holy Sites and will be accessed from the main public plaza. Visitors will now be able to decide whether they want to go to the gender-segregated Orthodox section, or to the section where men and women can pray together in the spirit of Progressive Judaism, as represented in the UK by Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism. The Orthodox tradition is represented in the UK by the United Synagogue and other ultra-Orthodox bodies.

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said: "This is a landmark decision for Jews throughout the globe. It recognises that Judaism is an inclusive religion with a variety of different but valid expressions.

"Equality of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation are central to Liberal Judaism and now at last progressive Jews can celebrate Judaism in keeping with the modern world at our most holy site."

The group Women of the Wall, which has for nearly three decades campaigned for equal praying rights, welcomed the decision. 

Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce said the decision was a "revolution for women and Jewish pluralism in Israel". She added: "By approving this plan, the state acknowledges women's full equality and autonomy at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel."

However the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, condemned the ruling which affects what Muslims regard as Islamic property.

Hussien said the Western Wall is "the property of the Islamic waqf that was taken by the Israeli occupation in 1967."

He described the decision is "a brutal attack on the waqf and additional evidence of the Israeli aggression against Muslim holy places, in an attempt to Judaize Jerusalem."