At least 2,500 people have turned up at a mass prayer at the Western Wall following calls by Israel's agriculture minister seeking divine intervention to end the drought plaguing the country for a fifth straight year.
Farmers, the president of Israel's Farmers Union as well as the country’s highest religious authorities, represented by chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, were in attendance.
Israel's Agricultural Minister, Uri Ariel, who hails from the Ultra Orthodox Jewish Home party, stated last week that a prayer service would be performed “alongside the preparations for a year of drought and for the sake of rain,” as all other more conventional steps taken by the government have, so far, been futile.
A recent long-term weather prognosis by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts has shown that Israel should be bracing itself for another dry winter, predicting an insufficient 64.7 percent chance of rain. Ariel’s expectation of the “skies ripping open” as result of the prayer were apparently high, as he called on those joining the ceremony to bring umbrellas, with many heeding the advice.
“After four years of drought, so far there have been less rainfall than the multi-annual average, and this winter looks like it will be another drought. I am happy that the public responded to the prayers and brought umbrellas,” Ariel said as cited by Aratz Sheva.
The minister’s rather bizarre appeal to the public has drawn backlash, with critics denouncing what appears to be Ariel’s over-reliance on a higher power to tackle a problem he is mandated to manage.
Ariel, however, defended his ministry’s record, saying that it had succeeded in reducing the price of fresh water for farmers by 20 percent, promising that the extent of water supplied to them will stay the same, or appropriate compensation would be paid. Among other ministry’s measures aimed at decreasing farmers’ dependence on changeable weather conditions is introducing water-saving crops and promoting efficient use of water.
In light of the looming months of drought, which last year were accompanied with raging wildfires, somewhat exotic versions purporting to explain the root cause of the natural phenomenon have surfaced.
Last week, Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu's brother-in-law suggested the drought is divine punishment for the prisoner swap deal, in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed by Hamas in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners back in 2011.
“I ask myself what happened five or six years ago, which apparently caused great anger in the sky. A great scandal and a collective sin of all the people of Israel – the release of the terrorists in the Schalit deal,” Dr. Ben-Artzi told Arutz Sheva ahead of the prayer.