PM may concede to haredim over Western Wall to prevent destabilizing coalition

For many years the Reform and Conservative movements chafed at the absence of legal standing for the religious ceremonies and services of progressive Jews and rabbis in Israel.

June 3, 2016 04:14
3 minute read.
VISITING THE KOTEL Monday are, from left, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz, Interior Mini

VISITING THE KOTEL Monday are, from left, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni. (photo credit: SHAS)


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It is becoming increasingly clear that in the titanic struggle over the Western Wall one side will have to suffer a stinging defeat, and that it will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who will decide the fate of this battle.

On an ideological level, the two sets of demands, from the ultra-Orthodox on the one hand and the progressive Jewish denominations on the other, are quite simply contradictory and irreconcilable.

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What the Women of the Wall along with the Reform and Conservative movements are demanding of the government is essentially a symbolic declaration at the physical heart of the Jewish faith, or thereabouts, that their practice of Judaism is legitimate in the Jewish state.

This demand is manifest in three main aspects of the agreement reached in January: a shared entrance for all visitors to the Western Wall complex, Orthodox and progressive alike; representatives of Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements on the governing committee of the pluralist prayer section; and state recognition of the new prayer area as being designated for pluralist prayer.

The haredi leaders on the other hand are telling the government, and the prime minister in particular, that they, as a critical part of the government, will in no way grant such recognition, and identifying the three key demands of WoW and the progressive groups as unacceptable.

How has this situation come about? For many years the Reform and Conservative movements chafed at the absence of legal standing for the religious ceremonies and services of progressive Jews and rabbis in Israel.

Both movements joined the long struggle of Women of the Wall, and lent it their great political heft, as part of their own fight to gain recognition for the notion that there is more than one way to be Jewish.


But this is precisely what the ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel has always sought to prevent. Prof. Yedidia Stern, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Religion and State project, says that giving state recognition to the progressive Jewish denominations, particularly at the Western Wall, would be for the haredi leaders literally a desecration of a holy place.

What brought the haredim to the negotiating table almost three years ago was the legal legitimacy won by Women of the Wall for their prayer customs and the threat that the High Court of Justice would soon grant even greater rights to this group.

They initially agreed to allow the government decision to be implemented, seeing it as making the best of a bad situation, but backlash from within their own camp ostensibly forced them to take a tougher line regardless of the consequences for the main prayer space at the Western Wall.

So who’s going to win? Stern says unflinchingly that the prime minister will side with the haredim and that he sees “no possibility that Netanyahu would risk his coalition over the Western Wall issue.”

At the meeting on Wednesday night between the prime minister and the leaders of WoW and the progressive movements, Netanyahu compared the agreement to the recent government decision for exploiting Israel’s offshore natural-gas fields, and spoke of implementing some 90 percent of the original plan.

In the only official statement to emanate from the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office would only say that he was committed to finding “a solution” to prayer arrangements at the site, and noted that there was “great difficulty” in implementing the government’s decision passed in January.

One idea that has been mentioned is to start implementing some of the physical requirements to prepare for the new prayer space, while delaying decisions on the more knotty problems.

This however would appear to be nothing more than a stalling tactic, as it will only postpone the day of reckoning.

Quite possibly, Netanyahu may seek to offer a proposal whereby WoW and the progressive movements have to compromise further on the issues of the entrance, governance and formal recognition, and sees these aspects as the 10 percent that cannot be implemented.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and those of WoW have said that this would be intolerable for them and would precipitate a severe crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

But given the threat to Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which siding with the progressive movements would cause, it seems unlikely that the clauses that those groups hold so dear can be approved at this stage.

This may indeed precipitate an outpouring of anger from large parts of Diaspora Jewry, but the prime minister may prefer this distant fury than the more imminent threat of early elections.

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