One day in mid-August 2013, a group of workers entered the Davidson archeological park, an assortment of old Temple Mount ruins that runs along the southern section of the Western Wall.
At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Workers often appear in the park, one of Jerusalem’s more attractive tourist sites and a desired location for high-end parties and events.
The workers started building a scaffold just over the ruins beneath Robinson’s Arch, the modern name for the ancient stairwell that used to connect old Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and still slightly protrudes from the wall. Onlookers weren’t sure what to think, dismissing the construction as either a new and temporary exhibit or a scaffold needed to clean the ruins below.
Within a few days, though, the scaffold started to take the form of a platform.
Not just any platform, but a prayer platform. Planks of wood were put down and then scrubbed and polished. Rails along the sides were mounted to prevent people from falling onto the 2,000-yearold stones below. The Wakf Islamic trust, which has – in the past – successfully stopped repairs at the nearby and crumbling Mugrabi Bridge, started paying attention. But it was too late. A new prayer plaza, called Azarat Yisrael – the “Israel Plaza” – had been built for use by Reform, Conservative and other progressive Jews.
Construction of the platform by the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry was aimed at defusing the crisis that had been brewing with the Women of the Wall (WoW) group. The ministry said that the platform was temporary and was based on a plan originally drafted by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky who spent three years trying to hammer out a compromise between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and WoW alongside the Reform and Conservative movements.
Originally, WoW, as well as the progressive American Jewish leadership, had their eyes set on creating a third, egalitarian, prayer space adjacent to the women’s prayer section in the primary Kotel plaza, an iconic image throughout the Jewish world.
They understood very quickly though that such an idea wouldn’t fly here in Chief Rabbinate-controlled Israel. So a compromise was reached and they agreed to establish the egalitarian space near Robinson’s Arch, separating themselves from the more-recognized prayer plaza – even though both run along the same Western Wall.
In exchange for this concession, the parties agreed to two key requirements.
The first was to establish a single and joint entrance for all of the Kotel’s different prayer sections. What this meant in practice was moving the current entrance to the Kotel that is opposite the Dung Gate some 50 meters so it would include the existing and smaller entrance to the egalitarian plaza.
The second demand was the establishment of a committee to oversee the new prayer site – similar to the existing state-supported-and-funded Western Wall Heritage Foundation – that would consist of representatives of the progressive movements, the Jewish Agency and the government.
Sharansky’s vision was simple – “One Kotel for one people.” That vision, though, has unfortunately not yet been realized.
This is important to note because in the predawn hours on Sunday, tens of thousands of Jews – young and old – will descend on the Kotel plaza as part of the annual Shavuot pilgrimage. Some will be there to pray. Others, to mingle with friends and family on the sidelines of this time-honored traditional gathering.
But for a large portion of the Jewish people - those interested in egalitarian prayer - this will be impossible. They will have to stay home. They will not have a place to pray alongside the ancient stones of the wall that once supported the Temple.
Azarat Yisrael will remain empty.
This should be of concern for us all.
Israel-Diaspora ties have been waning for some time and failure to resolve the Kotel standoff only makes matters worse.
Reform and Conservative Jews throughout the US already feel like second-class citizens when it comes to ritual in Israel such as conversions and marriage. By failing to create a prayer space that all Jews can call home, the government is leading this relationship toward an even greater divide.
This is especially true at a time when the government is investing hundreds of millions of shekels in strengthening Jewish identity among Diaspora youth and working hard to connect young Jews to the State of Israel through programs like Birthright and Masa. While these programs are important, something has been forgotten – these Jews first need to be made to feel equal.
The irony is that all the Reform and Conservative leaders want is for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement a decision his own cabinet made in January. Then, in a vote of 15 to 5, the government approved Sharansky’s plan, including the construction of a new entrance and the establishment of a joint oversight committee.
It’s like the old joke about Israel, one American Jewish leader said this week: In America, people first negotiate and then sign a deal. In Israel, you first sign, and then start negotiating. If the consequences were not so dire, it might be funny.
Stopping implementation of the deal are the haredim, led in battle by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the state-appointed rabbi in charge of the Kotel, alongside the ultra-Orthodox political parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. They are now threatening to topple the government if the deal goes through. Why, you might ask: simple.
As long as progressive Jews stayed in their prayer platform – separated from the Orthodox plaza by the Mugrabi Bridge – they were okay. The joint oversight panel, though, is akin to legitimizing progressive Jews in Israel. The same holds true with regards to the joint entrance. Orthodox Jews, according to the haredim, cannot apparently enter through the same gate as a Conservative or Reform Jew.
What is strange is that Netanyahu may be the one Israeli politician who cannot be accused of underestimating the importance of retaining strong ties with American Jewry. He understands what many Israelis don’t – that the Kotel standoff is actually a human rights issue. Entering a prayer plaza from a smaller, practically hidden and less respectable entrance is, for many US Jews, a reminder of how African Americans used to be sent to the back of the bus.
“It is absurd in our thinking that the Jewish state is not free to all expressions of Judaism,” Rabbi Steve Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told me this week.
“There is a minority that has a disproportionate control over the Jewish state. And we, who are majority of the Jewish world, are sidelined.”
How, Wernick asked, can this foster anything but anger, frustration and a feeling that progressive Jews are second-class citizens? “Israel has women in politics, business and industry who are afforded equality in all except in the realm of religion,” he said.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that a resolution to the Kotel crisis would be critical to bridging the gaps between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Failure, he said, has the potential to cause an unprecedented rupture.
“We want the Kotel to be a symbol of Jewish unity,” he told me.
The situation is already untenable. On Tuesday morning, Lesley Sachs, WoW’s executive director, was arrested by police for bringing a Torah scroll into the women’s prayer section in violation of Rabinowitz’s regulations that ban the entrance of private Torahs to the Kotel prayer plaza.
The Torah that Sachs was caught “smuggling” was donated to WoW by a family from Sacramento, California. The Torah had originally come from Germany and was smuggled out, with the family, as the Holocaust descended over Europe. Sachs had to smuggle it in because while the High Court in 2013 ruled that WoW can pray freely at the site, Rabinowitz refuses to give its members a Torah scroll.
So what happens next? Last week, Sharansky, Jacobs, Wernick and representatives of WoW met with Netanyahu who asked for a few weeks to see if another compromise could be achieved. The rabbis don’t plan on waiting long and new petitions to the High Court – which has voted in favor of WoW in the past – are being prepared.
The Jewish people knows on its flesh the pain and suffering that can come from internal discord, strife and ongoing fights like the current one over the Kotel. The empty Temple Mount is a testament, our tradition tells us, of how destruction often follows internal rifts and ruptures.
That is why Shavuot is a time for the government - and specifically its haredi partners - to reevaluate their positions.
It is a holiday that commemorates the reception of the Torah but also highlights the story of Ruth, a convert, who was accepted into the Jewish people.
Acceptance is a word often forgotten amid the religious and political tension we face daily here in Israel.
But on this Shavuot, we should keep in mind something Rabbi Jacobs reminded me of – the place where the Torah was originally given to the Jewish people was in the desert wilderness. Why there? To demonstrate that there is no single owner over the Torah. It, like the Kotel, belongs to all Jews.