Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to meet today with North American Jewish leaders, including the rabbinic leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the delay in creating a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall. We hope that the prime minister honors a standing cabinet decision and does not cave in to demands from the zealots in his coalition.
At the end of January, a majority of the ministers who make up the cabinet voted to reserve an area south of the Kotel plaza for non-Orthodox prayer and to provide a place for Women of the Wall, a group of Orthodox and non-Orthodox women who advocate egalitarian prayer near Judaism’s holiest site.
A centerpiece of the deal, which was the result of long months of negotiations and compromises on all sides, was that all denominations of Judaism – Orthodox and non-Orthodox – would share a common entrance. Entering through the same door symbolizes equality. Upon entering, each visitor would be given the opportunity to choose where he or she feels most comfortable praying.
Ministers Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi), David Azulai (Shas), Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Ya’akov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) voted against the proposal.
They lost the vote to the majority, which supported the Kotel deal.
But the opponents of the deal, all of whom are motivated by their religious convictions that reject as blasphemous non-Orthodox forms of religious expression, refused to give up. They were particularly incensed by the idea that they had to share the same entrance with Reform and Conservative Jews.
In deference to the unyielding religious zealots in his coalition, Netanyahu agreed to delay implementation of the cabinet decision for 60 days. The 60 day deadline has come and gone, but the prime minister has yet to honor the cabinet decision.
We hope Netanyahu, under pressure from the zealots in the cabinet, does not attempt to extract additional concessions from the progressive streams of Judaism and the Women of the Wall. They have compromised enough.
According to an April, 2013 Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court decision handed down by Judge Moshe Sobell, women who wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall Plaza are not causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested as they had been until Sobell’s decision.
Sobell and the court rejected the “blame the victim” argument previously in use by the courts that claimed that by donning prayer shawls and tefillin and reading from the Torah scroll in public, Women of the Wall were inciting to violence.
After the court for the first time supported the right of Women of the Wall to pray the way they wished inside the Western Wall Plaza, the religious zealots realized that, if they wanted them to stop, they had to negotiate.
The Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were willing to give up their claims to egalitarian pray in the Western Wall Plaza on condition they were granted an alternative area. The resulting agreement between the sides was approved by the cabinet in January.
Now, in order to avoid a confrontation with the zealots in his coalition, Netanyahu might try to put pressure on the Women of the Wall and representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements to compromise.
We advise him not to. This is not just because it would be a violation of trust, a setback for religious freedom and a dangerous precedent, but also because the creation of a pluralistic prayer area at the Kotel is inevitable. If Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox streams petition the High Court to force the government to implement its decision, they will probably win.
The government could take the easy way out and continue to delay implementation of the decision. A petition would be filed. The High Court would rule.
The Supreme Court would be attacked for interfering in government decisions and a conflict with the haredim would ensue.
But Netanyahu has an opportunity to do something different. He can stand up for the idea that democratic decisions must be respected and that religious rights and equality must be upheld and move forward with the Kotel deal – with or without the zealots.