BBC’s Western Wall report fails to provide adequate information

On June 26th the BBC News website’s Middle East page ran an article headlined “Jewish group cancels Netanyahu dinner over Western Wall decision” which opened as follows:

“A leading Israeli Jewish group has cancelled a gala dinner with Israel’s PM after his government froze plans to upgrade a mixed-gender area for prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The board of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, said it “deplored” the move.”

The article later includes further reporting of, and a link to, the Jewish Agency’s statements together with those of two additional organisations; the UJA and ‘Women of the Wall‘.

“The [Jewish Agency] board later passed a resolution warning that the “dangerous and damaging steps” had a “deep potential to divide the Jewish people”.

“We call upon the government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly,” it added.

The United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York said the Israeli government’s actions “would destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home”.

Women of the Wall (WOW), a liberal group that campaigns for the right of women to perform the same prayer rituals as Orthodox men there, said Sunday had been a “terrible day for women in Israel” and accused Mr Netanyahu of “kow-towing to a handful of religious extremists”.”

But how is the core story that is the subject matter of this article portrayed?

In addition to being told in the opening paragraph that the Israeli government “froze plans to upgrade a mixed-gender area for prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall”, readers are informed that:

“Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit the [Western] wall to pray. It is administered by the Orthodox rabbinate and, in accordance with Orthodox tradition, men and women must pray in separate areas.

For years the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which have large followings outside Israel, campaigned for a mixed-gender prayer space.

Since 2013, a temporary prayer area for mixed worship was opened at the southern end of the wall and in 2016, Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet voted in favour of plans to upgrade it.

But after two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition raised objections to the plans, ministers voted at a meeting on Sunday to suspend their implementation.”

Right at the end of the article readers are told that:

“Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman later issued a statement stressing that it was important to Mr Netanyahu that “every Jew is able to pray at the Western Wall” and that he had issued three directives on Sunday which had “gone unnoticed”.

“First, the prime minister instructed that work to prepare the southern plaza be expedited so that Jews from all streams may pray at the Western Wall. Second, that Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today. Third, the prime minister instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and me to continue dialogue in order to try and reach a solution,” the statement said.”

Obviously uninformed readers would not be able to understand from the conflicting statements presented by the BBC in this report whether or not the mixed prayer space at the Western Wall continues to exist or what the practical implications of this cabinet decision actually are. Fortunately, the Times of Israel has a much clearer explanation of the story.

“Starting in the year 2000, following a long legal and public awareness battle, liberal Jews have had the right, granted by the State of Israel, to pray in the southern section of the Western Wall plaza. Alongside other liberal Jewish movements, the Israeli Conservative movement has since maintained prayer shawls and prayer books there in an effort to encourage pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. […]

This area adjacent to the Western Wall currently contains two main areas of temporary prayer platforms, which are built over and among the archaeological remains. […]

The 450-meter larger platform was opened […] in August 2013 by Naftali Bennett, then the religious affairs minister. At the time, Bennett said it was meant to be “an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.” […]

The 2013 temporary platform was met by skepticism — and in some cases disdain — by leaders of Diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall, who at that point sought a space at the more normative Western Wall complex, or, at the very least, a permanent solution.

In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit to aid in leading negotiation efforts to reach a compromise acceptable to liberal Jewry, the Women of the Wall, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, otherwise known as the rabbi of the western wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch. […]

…after years of negotiations, on January 31, 2016, the government passed a decision, colloquially called the “Kotel deal” […] The egalitarian prayer would continue in the southern area of the Western Wall, but there would be one entrance for all to the Western Wall plaza, which would lead to the different pluralistic, men’s and women’s pavilions.

There was to be a joint committee of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials overseeing the southern area. The existing Orthodox prayer pavilion would be administered by Rabinovitch. Additionally, the temporary prayer platforms would double in size and be more connected.”

Another explanation of the situation can be found in a video uploaded to Facebook by Naftali Bennett in which he explains that what has been ‘frozen’ is the new entrance and the formation of the joint committee. The actual mixed prayer space remains accessible and in use and – according to Bennett – will be expanded. Next month, there will be a hearing on the issue in the High Court.  

It would obviously have been helpful to BBC audiences trying to understand this story – and seeking to put comments such as [a] “terrible day for women in Israel” into context – had the corporation clarified that the mixed prayer space that has been in use for years has not in fact been affected at all.  

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