Fighting up a wall for the pluralistic Kotel Agreement

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Five years after first being approved, then, the Kotel Agreement remains suspended but not forgotten.

PRAYING AT the Western Wall – five years after first being approved, the Kotel Agreement remains suspended but not forgotten. (photo credit: Courtesy)
PRAYING AT the Western Wall – five years after first being approved, the Kotel Agreement remains suspended but not forgotten.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 For the chairman of the Jewish Agency to unprecedentedly boycott an event hosted by Israel’s prime minister, there had best be a compelling reason. On June 25, 2017, Natan Sharansky believed there was one.
For the best part of four years, at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he had labored assiduously to stitch together an agreement regarding pluralistic prayer at the Kotel between parties with diametrically opposing views on the matter. Against all odds, he succeeded, and on January 31, 2016, the government approved the plan, which by all accounts was truly historic.
According to the agreement, a single entrance would be constructed through which all those wending their way to the Western Wall would need to pass, whether heading to an area designated for traditional Orthodox prayer or one intended for pluralistic worship, both of which would be in full public view, thereby establishing the tenet of one wall for one people.
Secondly, a public council would be established to administer the pluralistic section, including for the first time representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall alongside representatives of the government, thereby signaling official state recognition of the religious streams.
Thirdly, regulations of the law protecting Israel’s holy places would be amended to ensure “the principles of religious pluralism and gender equality” and prayer that would be “egalitarian and unsegregated,” thereby enshrining in legislation a major shift in the religion-state paradigm.
Those who celebrated this arrangement despite the painful compromises made would, however, soon be disappointed. Month after month they were forced to contend with procrastination, postponement and noncompliance until, after a year and half of foot-dragging, the government formally suspended the arrangement.
The timing and the manner in which the freeze was announced couldn’t have been worse. It happened on the day the agency’s international board of governors convened in Jerusalem. Sharansky had received no advance warning, and – personal insult to him aside – the move was perceived as a grave affront to the agency and the totality of world Jewry that it represents.
And substantively, the parties that had sought accommodation for the custom in which they wished to pray at Judaism’s holiest of sites were left empty-handed and outraged. Canceling the festive dinner to which the prime minister had invited Jewish Agency leadership was seen as the least of the steps that needed to be taken to register its protest.
That, and the numerous other objections to deferral of the agreement that have been registered in the ensuing four years, have had no practical effect. Ministers were charged with resolving the issue, committees established, and interim renovation plans approved, but all to no avail. In fact, the situation is more constraining today than it was when the government first approved the plan.
In July 2018 an enormous stone fell from the Kotel onto the only spot where those engaging in non-Orthodox worship might actually touch the Wall. To date, the platform it destroyed has not been reopened, preventing those who would participate in pluralistic prayer from accessing the site.
Consequently, a number of parties to the original agreement petitioned the High Court, demanding that the government stand by its initial decision. On November 3, 2020, the court directed the government to reply. It has yet to do so.
ON THE eve of the election that will determine the composition of the government that will be required to respond, the contending Zionist parties were asked to state their positions on the matter.
Not surprisingly, most welcomed the opportunity to lambast the ruling Likud Party while clarifying their own positions on the matter to varying degrees.
The New Hope is a case in point, its spokesman declaring that “the Kotel Agreement is just one of a range of issues of religion and state where the Netanyahu government has failed to make a decision... causing and deepening the painful rifts in our people in Israel and abroad.”
He promised instead “open dialogue with all the relevant bodies, in Israel and among world Jewry, to find solutions to these important issues.”
He would not suggest what those solutions might be that four years of dialogue had not already produced, nor commit the party to any stance of its own on the matter.
One of New Hope’s candidates, however, MK Zvi Hauser, who was intimately involved in formulating the Kotel Agreement, was far more explicit, arguing that the recommendations approved five years ago continue “to reflect a compromise formula to which all the parties can reconcile themselves, even given the deep disagreements and integral differences between them. Still today,” he said, “I believe this is the only possible compromise and should be implemented as first adopted by the government.”
Others were similarly definitive in stating their positions.
The Labor Party responded that it would be “unyielding in its determination to advance the Kotel Agreement as originally approved,” adding that “it was scandalous that the Netanyahu government had frozen the agreement, proof of its inability to stand up to the haredim and its failure to govern in the interests of the entirety of the Jewish people.”
The Meretz spokesperson was equally resolute, declaring that “the Kotel should not be run as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and must be accessible and open to all,” insisting that “in the new government, without Netanyahu, we will return to advancing the Kotel Agreement, proud to take part in seeing to its full implementation,” and adding that “the backtracking of Netanyahu and his government on the agreement... is yet another indication of how easily they acquiesce to pressure from the extremist religious positions.”
Just as adamant in its support of the arrangement was Yesh Atid. “We believe Israel needs to implement the Kotel Framework as was agreed between the government and the leadership organizations of the Jewish world,” said its spokesperson, adding that the party “believes in full equality for all streams of Judaism” and that “Israel, as the capital of the Jewish world, can’t be the only Western democracy without freedom of religion for Jews. That includes the Kotel Framework, conversion bill, civil marriage and more.”
Also championing Jewish pluralism was Yisrael Beytenu. “Even from the opposition,” its spokesman noted, “the party supported the Kotel Arrangement with the objective of avoiding harm to Jewish unity and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora,” blaming the haredim for its suspension.
He, too, framed his response in the broader context of the party’s strong support for religious pluralism, noting its “fierce opposition to recognizing only those conversions conducted through the state-run conversion system,” and welcoming the recent Supreme Court decision recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions while accusing Netanyahu of giving in to the ultra-Orthodox in this matter as well.
Blue and White likewise insisted that “the Kotel Agreement needs to be implemented immediately,” its spokesman noting that Defense Minister Benny Gantz stands by his statement of record that “as a proud owner of a red beret, worn by the liberators of the Kotel, I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone. Everyone.”
The party, the spokesman said, “envisions an Israel where all streams of Judaism have a recognized and respected place in society, where egalitarian Jewish prayer is not only allowed at the Western Wall, but celebrated,” while protesting “that religious pluralism in Israel has suffered greatly under the Netanyahu administration.”
Officials in both the Likud campaign and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to offer any comment on the matter, despite repeated and persistent attempts to elicit some response from them. Likewise the office of Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was appointed by Netanyahu to oversee negotiations to resolve the crisis when the government first froze implementation of the Kotel Agreement.
Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party similarly ignored several requests for a statement on the issue.
THE REFORM and Conservative movements remain undeterred. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the former and No. 4 on the Labor Party list of candidates for Knesset in the upcoming elections, is confident that a new government will emerge after March 23 that will energetically implement the Kotel Agreement, which he hailed as “reflecting the principle that there is more than one way to be Jewish, more than one way to pray, more than one way to connect to the Jewish tradition.”
Upholding that principle, Rabbi Andy Sacks, head of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, avowed that “it is our right to pray in an egalitarian manner by the Western Wall.
“We have honored all of the commitments we have made to the government.... The failure by Mr. Netanyahu and his minions to keep their side of the bargain and kowtow to the haredi politicians is a blatant affront to proponents of religious pluralism. We are determined to continue our efforts to shape the State of Israel to reflect the Zionist values of klal Yisrael.”
Both movements are bolstered by the support they have from their constituencies abroad.
Speaking on behalf of the 1.2 million Jews affiliated with North America’s Conservative movement’s synagogue and rabbinical associations that he heads, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal attributed great importance to the new government implementing the Kotel Agreement.
“For those of us who don’t live in the Land of Israel, the Kotel serves as our permanent spiritual address. It’s essential that it be accessible to Jews of every stream. We teach our children that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people. It needs to be that in practice, not only in theory. We all need to be able to touch the stones, to pray there, to sing and to dance. It is a holy gift, meant to be shared.”
Among those who understand that is Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who heads an organization that sees itself as the voice of Diaspora Jewry in impacting on Israeli society.
Noting that while the ongoing elections have slowed advancement on the Kotel Agreement, he remains committed to furthering developments on this matter, which he sees as “key to fostering ties between Israel and world Jewry,” and to that end “will continue to encourage the Prime Minister’s Office, the Municipality of Jerusalem and other relevant bodies to advance its implementation.”
Five years after first being approved, then, the Kotel Agreement remains suspended but not forgotten.
Even while dealing with the unprecedented domestic challenges regarding health, education and economics generated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, political parties across the spectrum continue to concern themselves with the enduring challenge of fashioning Israel as the Jewish state it was always meant to be, each in accordance with its own understanding of what that means.
The author is a past deputy chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and – full disclosure – served in that capacity at the time the Kotel Arrangement was frozen by the government.