2016: Year of Failure for Religious Pluralism at the Western Wall

It was supposed to be a great year for religious pluralism. The reality, and the future, are not so certain.

CCAR at Kotel Mar 2016By Judy Maltz

2016 was supposed to have been a year of great tidings for advocates of religious pluralism in Israel. Kicking off the year, a landmark cabinet resolution was passed, granting official recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements, for the first time ever, at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

On January 31, the Israeli government approved a plan to create a new area by the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews would be able to hold mixed prayer services for men and women. The new plaza was also meant to serve Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group that has been holding an alternative monthly service at the site for the past 28 years, despite strong objections by the ultra-Orthodox.

The agreement stipulated that the existing gender-segregated prayer areas and a new mixed prayer section would be accessed by a common entrance and enjoy equal visibility. The planned 900-square-meter plaza, to be built at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, would replace the makeshift facility set up at the spot a few years earlier by former Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

According to the agreement, the Reform and Conservative movements would be represented on the board of a new public authority that would be responsible for operating the new prayer plaza.

The agreement followed three years of tough negotiations between representatives of the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall, on one side, and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall and director of the foundation that operate the holy site, on the other. The negotiations were overseen by former cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit, and the agreement was approved a few days before he took up his new position as Israel’s attorney general.

Today, almost a year down the road, the government has yet to take even one step toward implementing this agreement. No ground has been broken. No signs have been posted. A visitor to the Western Wall these days would be completely unaware that a major construction project was meant to be in the offing.

The first indication that the deal was off to a bad start came early on. Barely a few weeks after the cabinet vote, the ultra-Orthodox pushback began. In order for the agreement to take effect, the minister of religious affairs was required to sign a set of new regulations. He was given a deadline of 30 days. But David Azulay, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who holds the religious affairs portfolio in the government, refused to sign.

Feeling empowered by Azulay’s act of rebellion, Israel’s chief rabbis subsequently announced that they would not be party to a deal that grants formal recognition to Reform and Conservative Judaism, which they deem illegitimate. Rabinowitz, the Kotel custodian who had been present throughout the negotiations and had approved the final draft of the agreement, suddenly got a case of cold feet and withdrew his consent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners began threatening a government crisis if the agreement was enacted. Netanyahu begged the Reform and Conservative movements to show some flexibility. They refused.

A year that began with incredibly high hopes for the progressive Jewish movements ended this month with Orthodox lawmakers submitting a bill to the Knesset that would not only outlaw the new egalitarian prayer space but would also roll back any advances achieved in past years toward promoting the cause of pluralism at the Western Wall.

The legislation would ban egalitarian prayer services anywhere near the Kotel, and it would prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah scroll at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines. Today, egalitarian prayers services are permitted at the archeological excavation site known as “Robinson’s Arch” at the southern expanse of the Western Wall.

Moreover, in accordance with a landmark court ruling handed down in April 2013, women are permitted to engage in all the practices that would be banned under the new bill.

How did Israel move in one year from an agreement honoring religious diversity at the Western Wall to a bill banning any practices not deemed strictly Orthodox at the very same site?

Much of the explanation lies in the changed composition of the Israeli government. The parties in power when the idea of an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall was first broached were not the same parties in power when the deal was finally approved.

Back in April 2013, when Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky presented his blueprint for a plan to provide Reform and Conservative Jews with their own space at the Kotel, Netanyahu headed a largely secular government, with the ultra-Orthodox parties siting in opposition. Yesh Atid, known for its anti-Haredi slant, was the second biggest party in the ruling coalition at the time. But, by the time the deal had made its way to the cabinet for approval, another election had already taken place. By then, Netanyahu had revived his long-time partnership with the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Yesh Atid was forced into opposition with the other non-religious parties.

Faced with a revolt within his coalition, Netanyahu was forced to choose between keeping Conservative and Reform Jews abroad happy or keeping his government intact. Millions of American Jews, he decided, were expendable.

The deal might have been salvaged had an honest broker been around to lure the parties back to the negotiating table. Given the trust he had earned from the warring factions during three years of very tense negotiations, Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary might have be able to fill that role. But once he assumed his new job as attorney general, Mendelblit was out of commission.

Reform and Conservative Jews could have fought back harder, though the outcome, in all likelihood, would not have been different. For months on end, leaders of the non-Orthodox movements sufficed with letters to the prime minister – some more polite, some less polite – warning of a rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry if the government did not fulfill its commitment to them. Much ado was made about a protest email campaign, organized during during the High Holy Day period, which accomplished little if anything.

Only toward the end of the year did the aggrieved parties get up their nerve and take real action. In October, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, together with Women of the Wall, petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the government either build them an egalitarian space on the southern side of the Wall as promised, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-separated spaces on the northern side to make room for mixed-prayer services. Then, in November, in blatant disregard of existing rules and joined by hundreds of supporters, they pushed their way to the Western Wall, carrying Torah scrolls in their arms. This rare act of defiance prompted violent clashes at the Jewish holy site, and a reprimand from Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, though, the prime minister continues to plead with Reform and Conservative Jews to understand his political constraints and show some patience. Having all but lost faith in the Israeli leader, the vast majority of American Jews are now pinning their hopes on the country’s judicial system, which has a history of coming through for them.

The next round opens on January 1, 2017 – the deadline set by the Supreme Court for the government to explain why it did not deliver on its promise to build an egalitarian prayer plaza. Considering the number of extensions the government has already requested, it does not appear to be an easy question to answer.