A year on, Western Wall plan still stymied by ultra-Orthodox

A year has lapsed since the cabinet approved an historic agreement over prayer rights in the Western Wall. Has anything really happened since?

Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A year after the cabinet approved what was hailed as an historic agreement over prayer rights at the Western Wall for progressive Jews, no steps have been taken toward implementation due to intense haredi opposition that has all but killed the proposal.
The resolution adopted by the government on January 31 was hailed as a breakthrough for religious pluralism in Israel and as a measure that would bolster the relationship with the Jewish Diaspora, particularly in North America.
The major accomplishments of the deal were that the current site for non-Orthodox prayer at the Robinson’s Arch area at the southern end of the Western Wall would be formally recognized by the state as a prayer site for progressive Jews. It would be governed by a committee that included progressive Jewish representatives and would share a common entrance to the central Western Wall plaza.
Although the haredi ministers in the cabinet voted against the resolution, they were subsequently pressured by the chief rabbis, who had not been consulted on the plan, and by the online haredi press.
As a result, United Torah Judaism and Shas backed away from the deal, and, following an onslaught of denunciations of the progressive Jewish denominations, forced implementation to be frozen.
In the meantime, Shas has submitted legislation that would criminalize non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, including the Robinson’s Arch site. Its penalties for non-observance include, for example, a prison term of six months or a NIS 10,000 fine for a woman caught breaking the law by wearing a tallit.
The High Court of Justice is threatening to intervene. Earlier this month, it appeared to side with a petition demanding that women be allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section of the main Western Wall plaza, ordering the state to explain why this should not be permitted.
Another petition being considered by the court together with the Torah reading suit requests that the court either order the government to implement its own resolution or to divide the main plaza into three sections: men, women and a progressive Jewish prayer area.
In light of concerns that the High Court may force the government to implement the plan, the haredi parties have now demanded that the prime minister call a vote in cabinet to repeal the original resolution.
Although it seems unlikely that the court would take the radical step of dividing the central prayer area into three sections, it is possible that it will instruct the state to allow women to read Torah there.
This would put pressure on the haredi parties to agree to some solution for the Robinson’s Arch site, but would also create a precedent in terms of prayer rights at the site.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, said that if the resolution is repealed by the cabinet, Women of the Wall would continue to pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall and would be willing to go to prison if the Shas bill is approved.
“I’ll organize for hundreds of women to go to the wall with a Torah scroll and be detained, handcuffed, body searched, be indicted and jailed for it,” said Hoffman. “We’ve tried everything in the book, we’ve made big compromises, but the failure to implement this deal shows that violence and bullying pays off,” she added.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, lamented the lack of progress on the resolution and expressed concern for the damage being done to Israel-Diaspora relations.
“Who would have thought that one year on we would not be celebrating the anniversary of the agreement, but a yahrzeit [memorial anniversary]. If Israel is the Jewish state, it means it belongs to the entire Jewish people, and if it is not, then it would nullify one of the core principles of Zionism,” said Hess.
He also said that the progressive Jewish denominations would not agree to any further compromises on the original resolution, such as a physical upgrade of the current Robinson’s Arch site without a share in its governance and the joint entrance.
“We won’t agree to physical upgrade. We are done with compromises. We had to give up our decades-old demand to pray at the central Western Wall area, in order to get a site that is not yet in the Jewish consciousness as being the recognized Western Wall prayer site, in order to end the conflict, so we can’t compromise any more,” said Hess.
Rabbi Michael Dolgin, the senior rabbi of the Reform synagogue Temple Sinai Toronto, said that the failure to implement the agreement, combined with the fierce rhetoric from government ministers against progressive Jews, is harmful to the views of Diaspora Jews toward the State of Israel.
“My community is very strongly Zionist. Some of our members are incredibly supportive of the State of Israel and are proud to call themselves lovers of Israel, but now they are thinking maybe they love Israel more than Israel loves them,” said Dolgin.
“When the haredi parties suggest that there should be laws criminalizing non-Orthodox behavior at Western Wall, these statements and actions do terrible damage, which has an incredible impact and are discussed for weeks afterward.”
Dolgin said, however, that “we’re not going to turn away from Israel,” but that the nature of the debate on Israel within has now changed.
“The conversation is more challenging for us when there is public evidence and statements that the state doesn’t value our Judaism,” he said.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, said that the situation in Israel is now worse than before the resolution was approved last year.
“The haredi opposition to the agreement has been accompanied by an unprecedented wave of incitement by government ministers, and every day that passes without implementation, we’re going backwards,” he said.
“The government resolution was aimed at creating a situation in which Israel truly welcomes and respects all Jewish communities, it wasn’t just about allowing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“By not implementing the plan, the state is saying non-Orthodox Jews are second-class Jews in the Jewish homeland.”