Netanyahu at Western Wall.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The High Court of Justice will convene once again Sunday to debate the status of the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest prayer sites.
The hearing will be held before an extended panel after the government and previous courts failed to reach a decision or compromise that would end the decades-old standoff between progressive Jewish groups – mainly Reform and Conservative Jews – and the government.
Recent history is as follows. After passing a resolution to establish a third prayer plaza at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer, including an upgrading of the entire site, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet retracted the decision in June, setting off an unprecedented crisis with the Diaspora.
The rift has yet to heal and while Netanyahu promised at the time to allocate funds to upgrade the existing egalitarian site, work has not yet begun.
We have noted in the past that the cabinet’s retraction of its earlier decision is not only a slap in the face of progressive Jews but is also being used as a catalyst to further distance young Jews from feeling connected to Israel. At a time when Israel is anyhow having difficulty making inroads with millennials and progressive demographics, canceling the Kotel deal only made matters worse.
The retraction has further lowered Israel’s standing in the eyes of the vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jewry, a standing that is already in a shaky state due to close relationship between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.
But it has long been apparent that keeping his coalition together by any means necessary is more important to Netanyahu than alienating the longstanding base of support for Israel in the Diaspora.
The whole debacle surrounding the Kotel comprise reflects the degree to which the prime minister’s ruling party, the Likud, is beholden to the special interest parties of his coalition, especially the Haredim.
But even if the Kotel issue put him between a rock and hard place, no pun intended, Netanyahu could have attempted to smooth things over with Reform and Conservative leaders and explain the move as a necessary but temporary situation, instead of blindsiding them with the news.
Now it will be up to the court. We hope that the court makes the right decision and decides to force the government to implement the compromise that had been reached after three years of discussions and approved by the cabinet in January 2016.
The irony is that a decision by the court to allow pluralistic prayer at the Kotel will actually be accepted by the government. Even the Haredi parties, the ones that forced Netanyahu to retract the earlier decision under the threat that they would topple his coalition, will have a convenient out. If the court rules to establish the prayer plaza, the Haredi parties will be able to tell their constituents that it was not their presence in the coalition that allowed it to happen but the court that is to blame.
While such a decision would help repair ties between Israel and the Diaspora, it would be unfortunate that once again the High Court needs to intervene in a case that should be solved by the government.
This case never should have made its way to the court, but it’s the reality of our current political atmosphere that it has.
Now the judges will need to rule whether every Jew, no matter how she or he prays, has the right to pray at the Western Wall, and not tucked away on the side, out of sight.
It’s a right that should be a forgone conclusion to all forward thinking people in Israel, and one that most ministers in the government probably support in their hearts. But along with such legislation as the “Minimarkets Law” that passed last week, and other Haredi-led bills as proof, it’s clear that the political blackmail that coalition members are implementing is not going to abate, especially amid Netanyahu’s criminal investigations, family scandals and general weakness within his own coalition.
Thankfully, we have the court, which will, we hope, see things as they are, and as they should be.