Kotel politics

The Western Wall, outside Judaism’s holiest site the Temple Mount, has long been held hostage by the intersection of political interests.

April 12, 2019 02:16
3 minute read.
Kotel politics

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro [L] and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [R] at the Western Wall. . (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)


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At Jewish weddings, we say that we must put Jerusalem above our happiness – meaning that we remember the destruction of the Temple, even on joyous occasions.

Now, in a time of great happiness for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – as he begins his fifth term as premier, his fourth consecutively – he must remember Jerusalem and be sure not to forsake it.

The Western Wall, outside Judaism’s holiest site the Temple Mount, has long been held hostage by the intersection of political interests.

Most of the wall is set up like an Orthodox synagogue. This reflects the general Israeli preference for traditional Judaism, even among those who are not themselves Orthodox. But there is the small platform along the southern end of the wall, by Robinson’s Arch, that is reserved for egalitarian services.

The expansion of that platform and the auspices under which it would be renovated have been a point of contention between the American Jewish establishment and the Israeli government for years now. At the height of the dispute, donors were threatening to stop contributing to Israel, though things have calmed down since then.

The government has said that it would renovate the platform, but would not implement the outline worked out between the government, the Jewish Agency and representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements, by which they would be part of a steering committee that would determine how the egalitarian section is to be managed.

The reason is that preventing non-Orthodox movements from having any control over the Western Wall has become a pet cause for the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel.

Non-Orthodox movements are not popular in Israel, and they simply don’t have the numbers to get the political power they need to make a change.

Meanwhile, the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will have 15-16 seats and will be the third and fourth largest factions in the next Knesset, giving them even greater power than they had during the past four years. This will likely have far-reaching implications for matters of religion and state beyond the Western Wall, and they will continue to block any legislation to move toward greater religious pluralism or liberalization of the Chief Rabbinate.

As The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon reported, “this will affect not only religious life in Israel, but may further aggravate and inflame relations between the Jewish state and the Diaspora – particularly the Jews of North America, which chafes at the lack of equality for progressive Judaism in the country.”

On the one hand, the North American Jewish community needs to respect Israel’s democratic process and understand that the Reform and Conservative movements have not won the battle for the Western Wall. If anything, elections show that to really influence policy in a country, you need to create political capital.

However, polling has indicated that most Israelis would like greater tolerance, even if they still choose Orthodox services. The real problem is that it’s a low-priority issue for most and does not rank in their top concerns when they vote.

This is where responsible politicians need to come in. Netanyahu is well aware of the rift the Western Wall crisis has caused between Israel and a large swath of the US Jews who are most engaged and connected to Judaism and Israel. This rift can cause long-term damage to Israel which – regardless of strategic considerations – should, as the Jewish state, show some respect and concern for our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora.

Netanyahu cannot let a small but vocal minority continue to have the final say on such an important issue for the Jewish people around the world.

Our sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred between Jews. It is in the prime minister’s hands to bring this crisis to an end and implement a compromise. He should not let his new coalition continue to sow seeds of division at the Western Wall, the retaining wall of that very temple that such divisions destroyed.

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