Natan Sharansky stood up to the KGB over years of nonviolent resistance, opening one of the small cracks that would eventually bring down the Iron Curtain.
Now he faces a perhaps more daunting task: Mediating efforts between pluralists and Orthodox authorities over access to the Western Wall.
The last few weeks have seen heightened tension at the Wall, as members of the Women of the Wall have sought the right to pray as a group and in tallitot and tefillin at Judaism’s holiest site. They have been met by police who, heeding court orders and the Orthodox rabbis with authority over the Kotel plaza, have blocked their way or detained the worshipers. These confrontations have outraged many, especially American Jews who take pluralism for granted and don’t believe the Wall should be the exclusive domain of one religious denomination.
Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is seeking a solution that will placate traditionalists while expanding the rights of men and women to worship at the Wall as they see fit. His latest proposal would create a space at the southern end of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch, where men and women can wear prayer shawls and tefillin and hold egalitarian services. Among the supporters of the plan is Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall. “It’s not everything we were hoping for, but we will compromise,” Hoffman told the Forward. “You don’t always have to be right; you have to be smart, and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here.”
The plan has its critics, but Hoffman’s initial endorsement suggests what many observers have hoped all along: that the site of so much Jewish history and spirituality can become a symbol of compromise and coexistence, instead of a source of hostility. Wouldn’t that be an appropriate way to mark the 65th anniversary of Israeli independence?