Less than two years ago, women wishing to don a tallit (prayer shawl) in their section of the Western Wall plaza were liable to arrest by the police, fines and restraining orders banning them from the site.
The issue of women’s prayer rights at the holy site, led by the Women of the Wall organization, has grown into one of the biggest public debates in Israel and the Jewish world, involving politicians and Jewish leaders at the highest level.
While the controversy was at its height, a compromise solution to the volatile situation was proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky in early April 2013.
But a historic court ruling later that month made by the Jerusalem District Court turned the previous order on its head, in which Judge Moshe Sobel rejected the contention that such women were contravening local custom, the hitherto legal basis for preventing WoW’s services, paving the way for the group to pray however they wished at the Western Wall.
Despite the ruling, haredi political groups propagated extreme tensions and continued to surround WoW’s prayer services, leading the group to agree to enter into discussions on the basis of the Sharansky proposals for a permanent solution, agreeable to all sides.
Direct negotiations between the government and WoW, along with Reform and Conservative movements who joined their struggle, began in October 2013, but a final agreement has yet to be reached.
Negotiations were initiated between this coalition and Cabinet Secretary Avihai Mandelblit, who is conducting parallel talks with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the designated government supervisor of the Western Wall Plaza and Israel’s Holy Sites, and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the plaza.
Although talks began almost a year ago, an agreement has yet to be hammered out. Just before Rosh Hashana, leaders of WoW, along with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the Diaspora, conducted intensive talks with Mandelblit and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but a deal was once again elusive.
Sources within the non-Orthodox Israeli leadership, however, praised the prime minister and Mandelblit for their efforts, and although an agreement was not reached, called the meetings fruitful and positive.
“The prime minister is personally involved, he’s fully abreast of all the detail, he’s energized and looking at the issue as one of historic importance, and he’s definitely empathetic with our cause,” one senior source said.
They added that the talks would continue after the holiday period, but emphasized that there is no time frame for their completion.
Director of the Conservative Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess said significant progress had been made but that large gaps on central issues remain between the two sides. Nevertheless, he was full of praise for the prime minister’s attitude.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said that headway was made at the recent meeting and she was cautiously optimistic that a comprehensive solution could be reached.
Hoffman said that the main achievement of the negotiations so far was to gain a consensus agreement from all sides that the governance of the new pluralist prayer area would be in the hands of representatives from the non-Orthodox movements, the Jewish Agency and the government.
She also warmly praised the prime minister for his positive attitude.
The major stumbling block remains the physical solution to the creation of the proposed prayer area and access to it.
The Women of the Wall, since the beginning of the negotiations, have demanded that this section be accessible from the same entrance as the main Western Wall plaza. In addition, WoW insist the site must provide access to the actual stones of the wall and encompass an expansive area for the reception of large numbers of worshipers.
The group deemed the size of a hastily constructed prayer platform erected on instruction from Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett last year as wholly inadequate.
In addition, the plans must deal with the objections of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which fears for the preservation and accessibility of the Herodian era archeological remains.
Hoffman says that the proposed solutions made until now for the physical construction of the site were “extremely mediocre” and “did not even closely resemble what we had in mind.”
She said it appeared the proposals were designed to simply get the group and its partners out of sight.
“We are insisting on something monumental, so that when someone comes through the entrance to the Western Wall from Dung Gate, they are faced with a respectable and dignified option,” says Hoffman.
“WoW has to be wowed,” she says with one of her customary verbal flourishes. “We need creative architectural thinking. We and the Reform and Conservative movements are used to being treated as second- rate citizens at the Western Wall, and this new prayer area must show we’re full, respected and recognized citizens of this site.”
According to the WoW chairwoman, Netanyahu suggested renowned Israeli-American architect Michael Arad (who designed the World Trade Center Memorial) to take up the challenge of designing the new prayer area, and she says that the Prime Minister’s Office hopes to bring him to Israel shortly after the holiday period to examine the possibilities for the prayer space.
This means, however, that almost no progress has been made on agreement of the physical contours of the site, and the parties will have to start from scratch on this thorniest of problems.
In this realm, sources within the pluralist coalition have been critical of Rabinowitz, with several parties involved in the negotiations saying that he is demanding that Women of the Wall cease conducting their monthly prayers as soon as a deal is struck.
WoW have, however, consistently vowed not to stop praying at the main site until the full implementation of any agreement, meaning that the new prayer area be entirely completed in accordance with the terms of the negotiated deal, before they officially move their prayer service away from the women’s section of the main plaza.
Speaking to the Post, Rabinowitz said he was insistent that once he makes concessions he would be able to show concrete gains to haredi and other religious leaders, with whom he has spoken on this issue.
“The Prime Minister’s Office and Sharansky can testify how far I have gone in seeking to get the agreement of the leading Torah scholars and rabbis for the demands of Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox,” Rabinowitz said.
“I need to pay a heavy public price over this issue but I can’t pay this price unless I get something tangible in return; it can’t just be one side that is compromising, and I don’t see what the other side has agreed to give up on,” he continued.
Rabinowitz has consistently argued that he faces strong haredi pressure against any kind of concessions to the Women of the Wall and to recognition of prayer rights for non-Orthodox denominations at the Western Wall.
The issue is certainly a combustible one for the haredi sector and, as has been witnessed in the struggle with WoW, has frequently sparked protests and demonstrations against perceived injury to the sanctity of the site.
WoW will launch an advertising campaign on Jerusalem buses next week which promotes the idea of bat mitzva ceremonies for girls at the Western Wall.
The advertisements will bear images of several 12-year old girls who have expressed interest in having their bat mitzva celebration at the wall.
WoW says that the kind of facilities made available for bar mitzva boys are not accessible for girls, and points to the restriction on bringing a private Torah scroll to the Western Wall as a barrier to bat-mitzva ceremonies.
The group has long chafed at the restrictions on bringing in a Torah scroll to the site as an unreasonable constraint on their Rosh Hodesh prayer services.
Rabinowitz has refused to allow the group to use one of the many Torah scrolls made available by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to male prayer services in the main plaza, and current administrative regulations prohibit bringing in a private scroll.
Hoffman says that WoW intends to bring a Sefer Torah to its service for the new Jewish month on October 24, although it is unclear how the security services at the site will respond to this attempt.
“No Jewish community or prayer group would say that its services are complete without a Torah,” says a spokeswoman for WoW. “Wherever there were disenfranchised Jews, the inability to secure access to a Torah scroll was always the biggest symbol of their lack of freedom. The Torah is what all Jewish denominations and groups have in common, and we will continue to work to secure that right.”
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