Jerusalem — The long-anticipated pluralistic prayer space Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to expand and develop at the Western Wall — before reversing himself — appears to be on again, but it’s unlikely that liberal Jews will have any say in the process now or later.
News that the Jerusalem municipality’s legal office quietly approved the extension of an existing but unofficial pluralistic prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall (often called Robinson’s Arch) came as a complete surprise to the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall.
All three had signed an agreement in January 2016 with the Jewish Agency and Israeli government stipulating that the site would be expanded and developed with government funding; that a prominent joint entrance to the site and the traditional Western Wall plaza would be built; and that liberal Jews — not the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall — would manage it.
Then, in June 2017, Netanyahu “froze” the agreement out of fear that ultra-Orthodox parties in his government would bolt and force new elections.
Two weeks ago the Jerusalem municipality asked its legal adviser to weigh in on a novel idea hatched by the municipality, the Prime Minister’s Office, or both: Would it be possible to fast-track the project to allow people with disabilities to use the site?
The adviser said that “accessibility projects [are] of high importance to the public … and they can be executed with the approval of the city engineer and without the need for a [building] permit,” the municipality told NJJN.
The move allowed the government to bypass the City Council, where ultra-Orthodox members would have almost certainly thwarted the initiative.
Parties to the 2016 agreement say they feel blindsided by the city’s decision.
Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s chair of the board, called it a case of “smoke and mirrors.”
“This is a trick under the guise of providing accessibility to the handicapped. The southern plaza — where MK Naftali Bennett built an illegal sundeck — is already accessible today,” Hoffman said, referring to the site’s mechanical wheelchair lift.
Hoffman said Women of the Wall has no intention of using the expanded prayer space unless the agreement’s other “ingredients” are included.
“For us this is not a solution. The question of who is in charge of the southern wall plaza is much more important than the number of meters added to the space.”
If Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Western Wall, is in charge of the plaza, Hoffman said, “women will be discriminated against [in] both the northern and southern parts of the wall. The Chief Rabbis have already stated that the wall is holy from the beginning to the end, and won’t relinquish ‘holiness’ to anyone.”
Unless Women of the Wall and the liberal streams have a significant say in how the site is run, “we don’t believe our religious practices will be recognized,” Hoffman said. “The Orthodox tell us, who were born here, ‘Go back to New York,’” referring to the belief, held by many Israelis, that non-traditional Jewish practice is an American import.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Israeli president and CEO of the Israel Reform Movement, said in a statement that no one in either the Prime Minister’s Office or the Jerusalem municipality informed either the Reform or Conservative movements of the city’s expansion plans.
“The Government of Israel has forgotten that we are no longer in the period of ‘wall and stockade settlements,’ and that the rabbinic establishment is not supposed to be the ruler of Israel,” Kariv said.
Josh Weinberg, president of ARZA, the U.S.-based Association of Reform Zionists of America, said his organization continues to demand that “the full agreement be implemented, and anything less than that should be at the minimum met with sincere and transparent dialogue with the Prime Minister’s Office — which is not currently taking place.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick of Caldwell, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, took a more conciliatory tone.
He said he is “glad” that the expansion is moving forward, but “disappointed” that the section will be “significantly smaller than envisioned” in the 2016 agreement.
“Most importantly, without a shared entrance that integrates the southern plaza with the northern plaza [former Jewish Agency Chairman] Natan Sharansky’s vision of one wall for one people remains unrealized,” Wernick said. The agreement “also gave those who use the site the authority to manage it. That is still missing. Small steps are good, but they are still small.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical arm, also tried to find something positive in the expansion decision.
“It appears that construction will be completed under an Israeli law [that] allows for the fast-tracking of projects that rectify inequality in disability access,” said Schonfeld. “This is a very important model, since equality ought to be a central value of any democracy. We should work towards the day when Israeli government regulations will fast-track the projects that rectify religious inequality.”
Shulamit Magnus, who manages the group Original Women of the Wall, which parted ways with Women of the Wall when the latter signed the 2016 government agreement and pledged to pray at the southern wall and not the women’s prayer section, said the expansion will have “no impact” on her group.
(Original Women of the Wall insists that women must have the right to pray any way they choose in the women’s section of the Western Wall.)
“We don’t deny anyone else’s right to go” to the southern wall to pray, Magnus said. “What we are opposed to is the coercion to go there, which the 2016 deal is doing. It would criminalize women’s prayer at the Kotel and make the Kotel officially a charedi synagogue. It is anything but feminist or progressive.”
While Original Women of the Wall and Women of the Wall don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, both groups distrust the government’s motives.
Hoffman likened the city’s decision, which was reportedly supported, perhaps even spearheaded, by the Prime Minister’s Office, to the African American struggle for equal rights.
“It’s like telling Rosa Parks to forget about sitting in the front of the bus. They say, ‘We’ll get a fan for the back of the bus.’ But I don’t want to move to the front of the bus because of the lack of air conditioning.
“I want to be treated like a human being,” Hoffman said.
Michele Chabin is contributing editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.