State recognition of rights of non-Orthodox won at cost of original fight of Women of the Wall

ANAT HOFFMAN (center), director of Women of the Wall, speaks to reporters at the Kotel yesterday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ANAT HOFFMAN (center), director of Women of the Wall, speaks to reporters at the Kotel yesterday.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
If victory can be discerned by the tone of the protagonists after the battle, then the agreement the cabinet approved yesterday to upgrade and formally recognize a pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall was a resounding victory for Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations against their Orthodox, religious establishment counterparts.
Leaders of WoW and the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements declared that it was a “historic” step to greater equality for non-Orthodox adherents in the Jewish state, whether living in Israel or in the Diaspora, and would be a beacon for Jewish pluralism in Israel.
Haredi political leaders decried the agreement, cast doubts over whether they would allow it to be implemented, and berated the non-Orthodox as “clowns” who would never get recognition in Israel.
But beyond the rhetoric, what was achieved and what was conceded? Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements did indeed score a big success in getting formal government recognition of their rights to pray at the Western Wall and gaining large public funds to massively overhaul the existing space at the Robinson’s Arch area, south of the main Western Wall site, into a resplendent egalitarian prayer section.
The Orthodox establishment has been uncompromisingly opposed to this recognition in all arenas since the Reform and Conservative movements first began calling for greater rights, and the anger and frustration of the haredi politicians at this new recognition was clearly evident on Sunday.
The Robinson’s Arch site will be formally declared to be a prayer section for “egalitarian and pluralist” prayer, and will be administered by a formal government body including representatives from the non-Orthodox movements and the government.
Further, these rights will be enshrined in law through changes that will be made to the Law for the Holy Sites (1981).
Both of these achievements are unprecedented in their recognition of the rights of the non-Orthodox denominations in Israel, and the formal standing they are given in a government body and in a prayer space at the Western Wall.
But this was not a victory without concessions from Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements.
The Orthodox establishment won the right to declare the central Western Wall plaza to be a site for Orthodox prayer only. Crucially, the agreement states that although anyone is at liberty to visit and pray at either of the prayer sites, prayer there must be performed in accordance with the customs delineated in the agreement for each prayer section.
Meaning that once the egalitarian site is completed, Women of the Wall will no longer be able to pray at the central Western Wall plaza as they have done once a month over the last 27 years.
This was the central, implicit concession made by WoW when negotiations began almost three years ago, and it was the bitterest pill the organization had to swallow to reach Sunday’s agreement. Bearing in mind that Anat Hoffman, the director of WoW and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, used to refer to the Robinson’s Arch site as “the back of the bus” and denounce efforts to move them there as an attempt to place WoW members “out of site and out of mind,” this was no small concession on behalf of her group.
On the plus side for WoW’s quarter-century- long fight, its members gained formal recognition for Reform, Conservative and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, and a beacon of pluralist Judaism at the beating heart of the Jewish people which they hope will serve as rallying point to put forth a new option for Israeli Jews of an alternative to Orthodox Judaism.
Yet to achieve this, WoW had to give up on its hard-fought right to pray at the central Western Wall plaza, identified and known by all Jews around the world as that very beating heart, in return for something which, perhaps deep down, they feel is not the authentic Kotel.
In this concession, however, was the recognition that the struggle of a relatively small group of women to pray exactly how they wished and where they wished should be subsumed into the greater struggle of the Reform and Conservative movements, especially those in the US, who have for so long felt slighted by the Jewish state at the rallying point of Jewish religious and national identity.
Indeed, this was probably the only way to secure a long-term victory, since it was the only way to counter the claim of the Orthodox establishment that Women of the Wall was just a handful of eccentric troublemakers.
WoW could have made do with the rights it won under the landmark 2013 ruling of Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled permitting them to pray with prayer shawls and tefillin without being detained. But the larger prize of state recognition of the rights of non-Orthodox Jews would not have been won.
How and why the agreement was reached must also be understood.
First and foremost, it was the legal pressures exerted the Women of the Wall that led incontrovertibly to Sunday’s agreement.
The decision in 2013 created a legal situation in which WOW’s right to pray in the women’s section in accordance with their non-Orthodox customs was unassailable. The police went from one month arresting women who put on a talit, to the next month defending those women wearing a talit from crowds of angry haredi men and women protesting their prayer at the site.
It was this situation which essentially forced the hand of the government and the religious establishment to negotiate. As Administrator of the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said on Sunday after the agreement was approved, he and the haredi leadership just wanted to put an end to the saga and see the back of the Women of the Wall.
No less important was the systematic failure of the state to compromise at a much earlier stage. Hoffman has said that at the outset of its campaign, WOW simply requested one hour a month in which its members could come and pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall, without fuss and without drama.
This eventually led to the Robinson's Arch compromise that was proposed in 2003 by the Supreme Court, but the state totally failed to create a suitable prayer site at this location, leading to the return in force of the Women of the Wall to the main Western Wall plaza in 2010 and the lead up to the new agreement.
This pattern seems set to be repeated in several other areas of the struggle over religion and state in Israel in the coming years, regarding conversion, marriage, kashrut, and other key issues facing the Jewish character of the state.
Finally, it was the pressure exerted by the majority of non-Orthodox North American Jewry and the Reform and Conservative movements, that forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand
The prime minister realised that the denial of rights and standing for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall was an open and festering wound in Israel-Diaspora relations that threatened, along with other issues, the critical support of North American Jewry for the Jewish state.
Netanyahu has not engaged in many of the battles over the identity of the Jewish character of the state that have taken place during his tenure as prime minister, with his eye on more physical and immediate threats.
But the feelings of alienation felt by significant elements of Diaspora Jewry when they came to the Western Wall, and their outrage at the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, was ultimately something Netanyahu could not ignore.
Should the agreement approved on Sunday be implemented, it will be an important first step in healing the wounds that have been created in recent years.