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Jerusalem Prayer Plaza for both sexes ignites uproar
Friday August 30, 2013 3:57 PM, ummid.com News Network

The unveiling of a new prayer plaza by Israeli authorities last Sunday to what was billed as an attempt to calm intense wrangling over the Western Wall, was immediately denounced as discriminatory by the main group that has protested the rules at the holy site, a media report said.

The Women of the Wall, the group whose monthly prayer sessions have prompted arrests and mass demonstrations over the past year, started a 24-hour sit-in to protest it, reported The Newyork Times.

Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, called Bennett's new plaza a "monstrosity" that "looks like a sunbathing deck" or a "rock-star stage."

She said she would continue to push for access to the women's section of the main area. As the sun fell Sunday, she and about a dozen supporters chanted the afternoon prayer under an Israeli flag near the Western Wall, then settled in with study materials for a long night.

"They've taken the keys to the holiest site and just given them to one extremist group that uses violence," said Hoffman, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, who have in recent months shouted and spat at the women's group. "We have to be vigilant and fight for every centimeter. We are equal."

The prime minister's office distanced itself from the new plaza, releasing a statement saying the government had yet to reach a decision on the matter.

However, Naftali Bennett, Israel's minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said the new plaza, in an archaeological park known as Robinson's Arch, was an interim solution until a more comprehensive — and contentious — plan for a mixed-prayer section could overcome bureaucratic hurdles and opposition from archaeologists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Muslim authorities. Built for about $80,000, the 4,800-square-foot platform is a "compromise," Bennett said, whose "goal is to unify all the walks of Jewish life."

The struggle over prayer at the wall is one of many battles about religious practice and identity in Israel, and it has attracted much attention from Jewish leaders abroad.

A remnant of the retaining wall of the ancient temple, the Western Wall is one of Judaism's most sacred sites, and since Israel took control of it from Jordan in the 1967 war, it has been a pilgrimage site for foreign tourists and a place for the daily prayers of thousands of Orthodox Israelis.

It is governed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, with prayer areas segregated by sex, and women are required to dress modestly and refrain from singing aloud. Since the late 1990s, mixed prayer has been allowed at Robinson's Arch, by appointment, during limited hours and for a fee.

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