The ongoing Kotel commotion

It was a bad day for democracy in the state of Israel.

June 25, 2019 21:16
3 minute read.
The ongoing Kotel commotion

Nir Barkat prays at the Kotel on the day of the Likud primaries.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It was two years ago this week that the government announced it was rescinding the deal on the religious functioning of the Robinson’s Arch plaza at the Western Wall.

It was a bad day for democracy in the state of Israel.

A deal had been brokered on January 31, 2016, after a drawn-out process, in which the state signed a comprehensive compromise designating the Robinson’s Arch area as an official holy site and as a permanent area for non-Orthodox pluralistic prayer.

The agreement included upgrading and expanding the existing platform used for egalitarian services, creating an official entrance equal to the main Orthodox section of the Wall, and granting public funding for the site. It also called for establishing a governing council to manage the area that would include representatives from the pluralistic and progressive streams of Judaism – Reform and Conservative.

 It was a historic agreement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given then Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky the task of coming up with the compromise instead of having one dictated by the courts. Representatives from the Masorti and Reform movements, the Heritage Foundation, Women of the Wall, the administrator of the Kotel, and the Federations of North America all took part.

Then cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, today the attorney-general, was brought in to negotiate with all of the sides and come up with a final plan, which the Israeli government approved. But the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox parties soon began waging a fight to cancel it, and a year and a half later, the government announced on June 25, 2017, that it was shelving the proposal.

It wasn’t all that shocking: Netanyahu had made it clear that as much as he would like to see the Kotel deal implemented, he was not going to let his government fall over it.

 Not surprising, the move infuriated the American Jewish leadership, a feeling of betrayal, an outright slap in the face. They had announced the historic victory when the agreement was reached in 2016, and now they were publicly humiliated. In light of the cancellation, the Federations even said they would have to reevaluate their relationship with the Israeli government.

Israel cannot afford to lose its connection with world Jewry, and decision-makers should remember that action taken in Israel regarding religion and state affects Jews everywhere.

Yes, the issue of prayer at the Kotel is not a high priority for Israeli Jews, and not likely to be a much-talked about issue in the current election campaign.

But that would be a waste. Precisely now, in this do-over election, Israelis should make this a topic to be discussed by politicians everywhere: what is the relationship in Israel between religion and state? And what does it mean that Israel is a homeland for all the Jews?

This is as much a social issue as it is a religious issue, and while the current stalemate in government means many more months until it is addressed, the topic should stay on the agenda.

Moreover, when the time comes for forming a government, the issue should be front and center. Enough of politicians willing to sell out Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, undermining civil liberties, human dignity, and Israel’s partnership with world Jewry.

Israelis and Diaspora Jewry need to unite in demanding an overall change, navigating these issues with sensitivity. Resolving the issue of freedom of religion and equality is important for maintaining Jewish unity, both in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora, for without it Jewish communities, Jewish unity, will shatter into fragments.

Israel must remain a place for all Jews, whether wearing a shtreimel, a knitted kippah, a sheitel, or nothing on the head at all. We cannot get to a point where worldwide Jewry debates the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

Fights have been ongoing over the use of the Kotel for decades, and we’re no closer to a solution even though there is one: the agreement that was carefully crafted three and a half years ago.

Now it is only a matter of political will. Perhaps this election campaign will finally force candidates to debate this issue and force it onto the table again in the next government. This is the right thing to do for the Jewish people.

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