The Sharansky plan for the Western Wall is dead. As the entire Jewish world now knows, his compromise calls for extending and expanding the Western Wall plaza in order to make room for a space for egalitarian prayer.
The demise of the plan is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Jerusalem Post article saying that the Palestinian Authority and Muslim officials will not permit the physical changes called for by Sharansky. On the one hand, this news is a tragedy; Sharansky is man of honor and great integrity, and his ideas won the support of most Diaspora Jewish leaders, who were distressed by the increasingly ugly quality of the confrontations at the Kotel. On the other hand, the news is not a surprise. Jonathan Tobin of Commentary predicted months ago that this would happen (due, in his view, to the rejectionist politics of the Muslims who control the Temple Mount), and many others did as well. (For a second Tobin article on the subject, click here.)
The real question is what happens now. My fear is that the government of Israel will go back to the same plan that it has been offering for years—calling for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site now separated from the Wall by the ramp to the Temple Mount. But this would be a mistake and an act of bad faith. The Robinson’s Arch plan will be unacceptable today for the same reason that it has been unacceptable in the past: Without the construction proposed by Sharansky, Robinson’s Arch neither looks like nor feels like an extension of the Wall. Indeed, if the government returns to this approach, there will be a strong suspicion that it has been engaged in a bait-and-switch—namely, government spokespersons strongly promoted an attractive compromise that it knew could never be implemented, won support for it, and then withdrew it in favor of what it was suggesting in the first place, with perhaps a few cosmetic changes thrown in for show.
It would be far better for the government to replace the Sharansky proposal with other, meaningful steps to address the religious sensitivities of the non-Orthodox segment of the Jewish people, which remains the majority of Diaspora Jewry. It could do this in a variety of ways, none of which would require legislation or would be subject to veto by Orthodox or Muslim authorities. For example, it could provide ongoing security for the monthly prayer services long held by Women of the Wall at the Kotel, while permitting the women to read from a Torah scroll at those services; it could send government ministers, men and women, to join them at the Wall as a sign of support; it could appoint Reform and Conservative representatives to the foundation that controls the Kotel; and it could have a senior minister address the Knesset, acknowledging religious differences in the Jewish world but proclaiming solidarity with the religious movements that want their practices to find a place at the Wall.
The sad, simple truth is that when it comes to matters of religious freedom and pluralism, Israel’s government has a long history of making promises it does not keep and offering proposals that it does not honor. The most recent example came after the Israeli Supreme Court decision last year that gave Reform Rabbi Miri Gold the right to a state salary for her rabbinical services; the government was to implement this decision and could have done so immediately, but did not. Rabbi Gold has yet to receive a single payment. Instead, another “government review” has been announced, which will supposedly make Reform and Conservative rabbis throughout Israel eligible for state funding. To be blunt, no one believes that this will happen anytime soon.
Natan Sharansky made a serious proposal to resolve a contentious issue, but Palestinian opposition is likely to make the plan impossible. Will the government of Israel try to avoid the issue by turning back the clock while exploiting Sharansky’s name for narrow political purposes? Or, will it do the right thing and follow up with real answers of its own—such as those suggested above—and in this way foster Jewish unity and enhance its ties with American Jewry ? I hope it is the latter, and I hope that we will see evidence of this in the days ahead.