An open letter to Benny Gantz

Here’s what you haven’t heard about the Kotel deal but need to know.

Benny Gantz unveils his party platform at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, January 29, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benny Gantz unveils his party platform at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, January 29, 2019
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dear Mr. Gantz,
In your opening address to the nation last week, you included issues of religion and state that you said need attention and redress. Among them, you included the Kotel deal, frozen by Netanyahu in June 2017, after threats from his haredi coalition partners to bring down his government if he implemented it, and which you said you would revive.
While most know about the haredi establishment ultimatum against the deal, very few have asked why it agreed to it in the first place, a question that really should be asked.
After all, the deal would have awarded Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site on the southern end of the Western Wall, officially to the Reform and Conservative movements as an egalitarian prayer site. Although the site has served as such for decades, the deal would have changed the status of the place officially and awarded the progressive religious movements state funding for its operation. Effectively, this would have given them the official recognition they have long sought, and against which the haredi establishment has fought tooth and nail.
Indeed, to that establishment, very much including the rabbi appointed to administer the Kotel, these movements are “works of Satan.” Why, then, would this establishment ever have agreed to the deal?
The answer is: because, in exchange for changing the status of Robinson’s Arch, making it a synagogue under progressive Jewish auspices, the status of the Kotel was also to change. Its status as atar leumi kadosh – a national holy site of the Jewish people – would be lost. Instead, it would be a synagogue under official haredi control.
All know that the haredi establishment has appropriated this site, turning it by stages into a haredi shrine. But that status is not official. That is what the deal would have done, and that is why the haredi establishment agreed to it, before pressure from its street made it renege.
This part of the deal was kept from public awareness, both in Israel and the Diaspora. But it is not the only far from progressive part of the deal carefully kept from such awareness.
Under the deal, women’s group prayer at the Kotel, which has long had Supreme Court recognition as legal and District Court recognition as “minhag hamakom,” a “custom of the place,” would have been made a criminal offense, punishable by seven years’ imprisonment and heavy fines.
A number of us, including every founder of women’s group prayer at the Kotel but one, rejected the deal from the outset, as had all of us rejected any alternate site, proposed to us many times since women’s group prayer there, with Torah reading, began in 1988. We organized to preserve, protect and promote the rights that Jewish women exercise regularly at the Kotel.
There are several women’s prayer groups there. The one in which I participate, Original Women of the Wall, experiences no incidents in our services, which we conduct regularly and frequently. Our group has a suit before the Supreme Court to require enforcement of the right of Jewish women to the same prayer options that men have enjoyed at the Wall since 1967, including access to its Torah scrolls, which the site’s administrator denies to all Jewish women.
Enforcing Jewish women’s rights at the Kotel has far broader implications. It means reining in the ongoing encroachments and abuse of the haredi establishment there and elsewhere as well. Which is a major reason our lawyer, Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, as well as other prominent jurists, see profound significance in our case.
Our group does not oppose respect for and recognition of non-Orthodox variants of Judaism. On the contrary; we want to see all Jews, including secular Jews, respected and supported for their customs and commitments, and for freedom of conscience and practice to enjoy resolute state protection from any coercion. Our members themselves represent the full spectrum of Jewish belief and observance, while our group maintains strict independence and autonomy, affiliated with no other movement.
What we say, however, is that the deal was – and, most importantly, is – not the way to go.
The deal would have taken sacred Jewish space, sacred to all Jews, and denominationalized it, turning it into a version of the Holy Sepulchre, at which competing Christian sects vie for every inch of space while delegitimizing one another. As the Talmud asks: Misham ra’aya? Is this to be our model?
The Kotel is and must remain the national holy site of the Jewish people, of us all, secular and any kind of religious, alike. More than this: it must be restored to this status on the ground. Haredi establishment encroachment and appropriation of the site continue apace, repelling many Jews, secular and religious alike, from the place.
I need not tell you, Mr. Gantz, of the emotions this site once evoked in all Jews; of the soldiers who sacrificed limb and life to restore it to Jewish hands in 1967, so that all would have free and dignified access, denied to Jews for nearly two millennia; of its function as a preeminent national unifier.
That site still has the power to serve this sacred function, but not if it remains under haredi establishment control, administered as a haredi shrine, with other Jews – except for our group, the only one to have successfully established non-haredi practice there – suffered only on haredi terms. And certainly not if it is formally awarded to the haredi establishment, vastly expanding its power and funding in its never-ending quest to establish a theocracy here.
There are other, much better ways to go, for all of klal Yisrael, in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Please meet with us. We’ll lay out some alternatives.