The Kotel Dispute: Is it Frumminess or Finance

Photo ©Blaine Harrington III

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

Did the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel pressure Binyamin Netanyahu to renege on the Kotel Agreement for religious reasons? Or is it for financial reasons? Based on my observations, I think it’s finance, not frumminess that has led to this mess.

As you know, the liberal Jewish community has been shaken by Netanyahu’s reneging on the agreement that would have allowed for a liberal Jewish presence at the traditionally Orthodox-controlled plaza of the Western Wall, known as the Kotel.

An agreement that took years and that made all the parties equally unhappy (the sign of a reasonable compromise) was summarily dismissed by Netanyahu because the ultra-Orthodox threatened to dissolve his coalition government. They cited spiritual and religious concerns over the supposed pollution by liberal Jews of the supposedly holiest space in Jewish tradition.

But what if religious concerns weren’t the main reason to scuttle the agreement? What if something else lurks behind the prayer shawls of the self-righteous?

Let me explain. Some years ago, I found myself in Jerusalem standing near the “The Kotel.” I had my prayerbook and other accoutrements necessary for reciting the morning prayers. As I made my way into the inner plaza to stand beneath the wall, I was accosted by the leader of a service being held nearby. He beckoned me over to the table where he and another man who were on duty said a prayer for my family. At the conclusion of the prayer, he asked for a donation.

When I refused, he dismissed me angrily and turned to another tourist who had entered the plaza.

As a result, I began to look at this holy place with different eyes. Intrigued, I took a place near the Kotel Plaza and watched. I saw at least 20 tables set up on the men’s side (where only men are allowed). Each table had two gabbais on duty. They seemed to have specific tasks: One would approach a tourist entering the inner plaza while the other would say the prayers and hold out his hand for a donation.

Fascinated, I stood watch for four hours and took note of the dynamic unfolding before me. The tables I followed were able to work on at least 15 people per hour. I then impersonated a reporter and started doing “exit interviews” of the donors. The donations ranged from $5 to $50 American with the average coming out to a little more than $20.

Do the math: 20 tables times 15 donors times $20 equals $6,000 an hour. Even if you take into account inclement weather during the winter, and subtract one day for the Sabbath (when use of money is forbidden) you have 52 weeks times 8 hours a day times 6 days a week at $6,000 an hour. That works out to $14,976,000 a year. Let’s call it $15 million.

These are cash transactions that are not recorded. Perhaps the money is being used wisely for some public purpose. But it seems more likely that the $15 million a year is going into the pockets of the tables’ sponsors. Given these circumstances, doesn’t it make sense that Kotel management would not want incursion (read competition) from liberal Jewish representation that would take not only space but customers from them? A liberal Jewish section of the Wall would attract a good number of tourists who are liberal themselves. Certainly the tour groups led by liberal rabbis would give their business to liberal minyans.

Is it the possible introduction of liberal observances that motivates the ultra-Orthodox pressure exerted against the agreement – or is it something more base? Could the loss of millions of dollars of unreported revenue be a contributing factor?

I would like to believe otherwise. But after decades of watching the ultra-Orthodox in Israel use their electoral clout to extract money and benefits from the government, I think that their concern about liberals at the Kotel has at least as much to do with money as with religion. And that’s the bottom line.

Steven Bayar is rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey.