What’s behind the exaggerated proposed Kotel legislation?

A new Western Wall bill proposed by Shas could see visitors who dress “not modestly” face a six-month prison sentence.

The Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Western Wall.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Behind the scenes of the bill proposed by Shas on Thursday, one that would fine worshipers who arrive at the Western Wall dressed “not modestly” or could lead to a six-month prison sentence - doesn’t represent the larger Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community, rather only a small subgroup of it that identifies as Hardal (nationalist-Haredi). Because, even though the bill came from Shas, it was the Hardal politicians who pushed it into reality.

Proof of this lies in a dramatic editorial by the Kikar HaShabbat news site, the most popular news outlet in the Israeli Haredi community. The editorial board wrote that “most ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews don’t want their personal religious affiliation to be the only affiliation in the country. During all the years of the state’s existence, the ultra-orthodox public never aspired to rule or be in the leadership of the state. The ambition has always been to receive what we deserve, and to live our lives of Torah and holiness, quietly and modestly.”

The editorial stressed that “the bill in question is one step too far in the arrogance that the ultra-orthodox parties have recently taken. There is no doubt that the Kotel is a holy place, the holiest [site for Jews] - and that’s how we treat it.”The Hardal community is a subgroup of the religious-Zionist sector that is more extreme on issues of religion and attitude towards the Jewish State. As opposed to the Haredi community, the Hardal community has the added political element of the Zionist dream, of retaking control of the country after two thousand years of exile.

This community’s individuals, politicians and rabbis see the Chief Rabbinate as the most important and central institution. Even though the current Chief Rabbis come from Haredi backgrounds, the average Haredi in Israel ordinarily doesn’t hold them in higher regard than their own rabbis – nor do they listen to their halachic decisions. Those who actually care about the Chief Rabbinate’s moves are the Hardal Israelis, who aspire for the Rabbinate to be in religious-Zionist hands, once again, as it was in the establishment of the State.

Western Wall controversy

 The Western Wall is seen in a photo taken February 9, 2023  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) The Western Wall is seen in a photo taken February 9, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In 2016, the Kotel Compromise was approved by the government – even though there were two Haredi parties in the coalition – with an egalitarian prayer section. It would have one entrance for the three sections (men, women and egalitarian) and include the establishment of an organization to oversee this prayer section, with representations from the three religious streams as well as diaspora Jewry.

Months later, the Haredi members of the then-Netanyahu government asked to freeze – and then cancel – the Kotel compromise. The reason? The Haredi media was pressuring them to do so. Why? Because Hardal groups worked behind the scenes to create a smart and successful lobby, based on data and information, claiming that this was the first step of Reform Jews from America to literally take over anything Jewish in Israel.

The egalitarian prayer plaza was dubbed “The Reform Kotel,” since these Hardal activists, mainly an organization called Liba, and others, knew that the word “Reform,” in a Jewish context, can carry negative connotation in Israel, especially with Haredi, religious-Zionist and traditional sectors. It was also framed as if it were led by the New Israel Fund, an organization many Israelis from the center and right-wing groups see as anti-Israel.

One of the sites that fought the Kotel compromise was Kikar HaShabbat, then under different ownership. The Haredi politicians later admitted to this pressure.

After the compromise was canceled in 2017, Makor Rishon newspaper interviewed two of the heads of the Liba organization. Yehuda Wald, then a Liba activist and today the CEO of the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), said: “We held in-depth meetings and promoted interviews with dozens of Haredi personalities such as rabbis, yeshiva heads and politicians,” he said of their campaign to promote the cancelation of the compromise. “We had to explain to them [the Haredi leaders] that despite the support of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch [Rabbi of the Western Wall] and the ultra-orthodox MKs, there is a problem with the compromise.”

He added they explained to the rabbis that Reform Jews “want to intervene in every issue in the country. Every rabbi we met rose from their chair in shock. We showed them all of the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate from previous generations, a document of the Mizrachi [religious-Zionist] movement against Reform Jews,” from years earlier. In addition, they said that they “specifically turned to ultra-orthodox journalists.”

Religious Zionism views the modern State of Israel as the beginning of the return of the exiles and a time of redemption, which will eventually lead to the rebuilding of the Third Temple in preparation for the messiah. Therefore, anything that has to do with the state – especially the religious aspects – are considered holy.

The Haredi leaders and politicians never had a dream to take over the country and make everything about it become Haredi. They mainly wanted to take care of their constituents and make sure that Haredi Jews in Israel can live their lives without too much external intervention.

On the contrary, the Hardal leaders, as extremist-religious-Zionists, want to not only care for their constituents financially and politically, but also influence the entire country to be like them. Noam party head Avi Maoz, who was given the position Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and responsible for the Education Ministry’s external programs, has been consistent in his position to limit the exposure of LGBTQ content in schools. If it is to be introduced at all, he posits, it will be at an older age and forbidden to be taught before 9th grade. Another example is the amendment to the Law of Return: The Haredi parties may have supported it but it was never high up on their list of priorities.

Barely any members of the RZP block reacted to the proposed bill on Thursday, and not because they didn’t have what to say. The opposite is true: Some of them are even more extreme on this matter than the Haredim, but it was easy for them to have the Haredim promote it, and react after.

The Haredim moved forward with the cancellation of the Kotel Compromise – and yesterday with the proposed bill because they cannot be seen as if they are less ‘frum,’ less religious than the Hardal politicians.

This type of legislation would have never been introduced in any of the previous governments because there were never as many Hardal-affiliated MK’s and ministers. This is merely one of Hardali pushes in the new government, and, if it survives, we are in for many more exaggerated bills to come.