‘The Kotel is supposed to unite the Jewish people,” MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Speaking three days after Sunday’s historic cabinet vote to significantly expand the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, on the southern end of the Western Wall, Oren looked back on years of debate over the issue, in which he was deeply immersed.
Oren’s involvement in the Western Wall dispute began in 2009, as one of the first issues he dealt with after being appointed ambassador to the US, as clashes between Women of the Wall and the police became a monthly occurrence.
Oren did his due diligence, visiting the Western Wall every time he returned to Israel, to pray and to study the situation, and “became like a world expert on the Kotel,” he quipped.
Oren quickly realized that the matter wasn’t just a religion and state dispute a small group had with the Orthodox hegemony.
“I realized this was a strategic problem for Israel, not just a Jewish problem or a hasbara [public diplomacy] problem,” he recounted.
As Oren saw it, both Women of the Wall and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) control over the holy site violated the status quo. WOW made headlines for trying to read the Torah, wear phylacteries, pray out loud and do other things that offended haredi sensibilities. At the same time, haredim encroached on the Western Wall Plaza, trying to exercise control over the area behind the gender-segregated prayer sections, where other events – such as Remembrance Day or IDF swearing-in ceremonies – are held.
In Israel, according to Oren, the dispute was one of law and order.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Orthodox status quo, police had to carry out that ruling, WOW were not respecting it, and haredim responded more and more aggressively.
“I was terrified of the prospect of violence. It kept me up at night,” he said.
In America, this issue, which the average Israeli cared little and knew little about, was galvanizing Conservative and Reform Jews and making the front page of The New York Times. WOW and non-Orthodox denominations presented the issue as one of women’s rights and freedom of worship and expression.
“We weren’t even speaking the same language,” Oren explained.
“I had this conversation with many people in [the US] government, with people representing constituents with large communities of Reform Jews and with Jewish feminists in Congress.”
Oren posits that the dispute was “enormously damaging” to Israel’s image in the US and contributed to boycott efforts.
The former ambassador pointed to a proposal being discussed in the Knesset at the time that showed him how explosive Israeli religion and state issues could be in the US: a Yisrael Beytenu bill that would make conversions to Judaism easier for non-Jewish immigrants eligible for the Law of Return, but close the door to Conservative and Reform converts.
Oren spoke to then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who visited the US, and could not reach a compromise with him: “Israel saw a way to get another 100,000 Jews, but Americans cared about pluralism.”
The bill “disappeared” after eight Jewish senators signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that if the bill passes, it will “have an immediate impact on the US-Israel strategic relationship,” Oren said.
“That had a big impression on me,” he recounted. “If they were willing to threaten the relationship over conversion, what would they do for women’s rights, freedom of worship and freedom of expression?” Meanwhile, the ambassador took existing plans to expand the Robinson’s Arch platform, which had never been implemented, and negotiated with US Jewish leaders to try to lower the flames.
Some non-Orthodox rabbis were reluctant, saying putting non-Orthodox streams at the southern end of the Western Wall was relegating them to second-class status. Oren had two main responses.
“I had to remind the rabbis that democracy was one of their cherished values, and Orthodox Jews account for a much higher percentage of the Israeli electorate than Reform and Conservative Jews do in Israel,” he said.
The other argument was that “public space has its limitations, and we agreed the Kotel wasn’t just public space; it’s sacred space. Not all things are permitted in public space, and even less is permitted in sacred space.”
Oren pointed out that disagreements exist within non-Orthodox streams on same-sex marriages, musical instruments in Shabbat services and appropriate dress, among other issues, and they would have to exercise restraint with each other.
(Sunday’s cabinet decision states the egalitarian section will be governed by a multidenominational committee with government, Jewish Agency and Jewish Federation of North America representatives.) With the help of rabbis amenable to the “Solomonic solution to divide the Kotel,” as Oren called it, including prominent Conservative rabbis Jack Moline and Stuart Weinblatt, and Reform rabbis Arnie Gluck and David Weis, Oren built a consensus in favor of Robinson’s Arch, and even began trying to get donations of prayer books and Torahs for the expanded egalitarian section.
In 2012, after years of work, Oren felt his efforts slip away when WOW leader Anat Hoffman was arrested for praying out loud at the Kotel.
She said police treated her violently, and while police denied it, the Conservative and Reform movements embraced her version of events and “called the State of Israel a liar, jeopardizing the whole thing,” as Oren put it.
The following year, the compromise seemed to go back on track.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court determined that women praying out loud in prayer shawls were not violating the Western Wall status quo, creating a situation in which police were obligated to protect the WOW instead of trying to remove them. The haredi response was mass enlistment of prayers at the Western Wall, and confrontations at the holy site escalated for a time.
Despite the heightened tensions, Oren said for relations between Israel and US Jewry, “that ruling changed everything. It took a lot of the explosive nature out of it, because the police was protecting the WOW.”
Oren said he gave Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky all of his findings, and the plan that then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit adopted and that was approved by the cabinet this week was essentially what he had negotiated.
Of the vocal objections of haredi politicians and other Orthodox leaders, Oren said that the ultra-Orthodox voiced no objections when he was dealing with the issue, and that they seemed to ignore the egalitarian services that were already being held at Robinson’s Arch years before.
Oren pointed out another obstacle the government may have to overcome: objections of the Jordanian Wakf Islamic trust, which controls the Temple Mount, to any changes in the area. The PA, he said, already said it opposes the plan.
Still, Oren was hopeful that the plan could be enacted and certain that it is the right way to go.
“Mandelblit would often say American Jewry have to understand that the Judaism of Israel is Orthodox, not Conservative or Reform, and he’s right, but I think this is the best arrangement possible. It preserves Jewish unity to the best degree that we can,” Oren said.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.