PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kotel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After Israel’s liberation of the Western Wall in the Six Day War, songwriter Yossi Gamzu penned a poignant poem inspired by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook in which he said, “There are people with a heart of stone; And there are stones with a human heart.”
Before 1967, under Jordanian rule, Jews were deprived of access to the holy site. Thankfully, that has now changed. But today, non-Orthodox Jewry is crying for the government to renovate the 450-square-meter wooden platform on the southern side of Robinson’s Arch known as Ezrat Yisrael, which serves as the only place where progressive Jews can pray in accordance with their traditions, in an egalitarian manner.
Additionally, the small 12-square-meter prayer platform which provides the Ezrat Yisrael area with its only access to the very stones of the Western Wall has been closed for six months due to damage from a loose rock weighing 100 kg. that fell out of the wall onto the platform in July, miraculously missing a woman praying at the site. A comprehensive safety survey of the stones in the Robinson’s Arch area was scheduled to ensure visitor safety and was due to have been conducted by the Antiquities Authority, but has still not begun, The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon reported this week.
This situation is untenable. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the 2016 Kotel deal for a pluralist prayer section for non-Orthodox Jewish men and women, angering the Conservative and Reform movements both here and in the Diaspora, he promised to enable them to pray at Ezrat Yisrael.
Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel Executive Director Dr. Yizhar Hess said the authorities would never have allowed the prolonged closure of the central Western Wall Plaza had a rock fallen there.
“It is very disappointing it hasn’t been completed by now,” Hess said. “With the main plaza of the Western Wall, it would be unthinkable to close the Kotel for so long.”
Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said, “The bottom line is that the government is not doing anything here. In the end, the prime minister is satisfied with saying something pleasant at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, such as ‘We’re working on it,’ and then winks at the hard-line elements by not doing anything.”
Asked for a response, the IAA said the Prime Minister’s Office was handling the issue, while the PMO declined to say why the physical inspection was taking so long to begin, when exactly it would begin, how long it would take, and when the egalitarian prayer platform abutting the Western Wall stones would be reopened.
The Jerusalem Municipality’s engineering department closed the platform and the IAA promised to conduct a thorough survey to determine whether more stones are in danger of falling. IAA Director Yisrael Hasson said at the time the survey would take about two weeks.
Half a year later, according to the IAA, laser scanning techniques have been used, but the physical inspection of the stones has still not started. Moreover, the IAA has still not chosen a contractor to perform the work.
Ezrat Yisrael comprises a large wooden platform set back from the actual wall by several meters. Some 100,000 Jews are estimated to visit it every year to pray as well as conduct weddings, and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
In March 2018, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit wrote in a response to a petition to the High Court of Justice that the Robinson’s Arch area should be administered by the Prime Minister’s Office and not the Chief Rabbinate. Netanyahu’s special adviser, Ronen Peretz, was appointed to head a committee to oversee planning and development of the site.
After Netanyahu’s decision on June 25, 2017, under pressure from his haredi coalition partners, to freeze the Kotel deal negotiated by former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and approved by the cabinet in January 2016, the prime minister assured American Jewish leaders that the existing egalitarian prayer section would, nevertheless, be renovated and even expanded.
As we near Election Day, we urge Netanyahu to keep this promise and order the renovation of Ezrat Yisrael to begin without further delay. This would not only benefit the Jews who pray there, but would help mend strained ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Now is the time to show that you care about all Jews.