Israeli solidarity with Colleyville synagogue is all words, no action - editorial

Israeli politicians expressed solidarity with the Colleyville synagogue hostages but won't further the Western Wall bill.

 A CONFRONTATION takes place at a service with Women of the Wall at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A CONFRONTATION takes place at a service with Women of the Wall at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It was a classic case of mixed messages.

During and after this past weekend’s horrific hostage-taking incident at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Israel’s leaders, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, were tweeting and issuing statements of solidarity and support for their Jewish brethren under assault.

It’s how it should be. Israel has always touted itself as the center of world Jewry, and we regularly express our strong ties with the Diaspora, whether it be Orthodox, Conservative, unaffiliated or, as with Congregation Beth Israel, Reform.

After the standoff ended with none of the hostages being harmed, Bennett phoned the synagogue’s rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, who has become an American folk hero due to his composure and leadership under intense pressure.

“We are brothers,” Bennett told Cytron-Walker, who spent time in Jerusalem studying at Hebrew Union College. “Israel stands united with the Jewish community in Colleyville.”

A law enforcement vehicle is parked at a school in the area where a man believed to have taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, US, January 15, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Shelby Tauber)A law enforcement vehicle is parked at a school in the area where a man believed to have taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, US, January 15, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Shelby Tauber)

That admirable message, however, seemingly contradicted another message that was implied when Bennett’s government approved allocations of NIS 110 million over five years for the Western Wall at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

The allocations will go toward structural upgrades of the prayer site, making it more disabled accessible, developing educational programs and encouraging more visits by students, soldiers and new immigrants, according to the cabinet announcement.

“The Kotel is one of the most important sites for the Jewish people,” the prime minister said. “This will enable millions more tourists to visit.”

However, no mention was made of any allocations for the Western Wall’s egalitarian prayer site, which remains closed and in disrepair and would be the go-to destination for committed American Jews like Citron-Walker.

The only prayer platform with access to the Western Wall stones for progressive Jews at Robinson’s Arch has been shut for more than three years, after a large stone fell out of the wall and caused damage to the wooden floor of the platform. That part of the egalitarian prayer section was closed for safety reasons, allowing the Antiquities Authority to carry out repairs when it was discovered that other stones could also fall.

Repair work was concluded after about 20 months in March 2020 but efforts to fix the wooden planks of the platform were held up due to an appeal against the work that was upheld by the Jerusalem Municipality engineer. Since then, it has remained off limits for prayer.

However, as the reluctance of successive governments to implement the 2016 Western Wall agreement – which would have seen Robinson’s Arch designated in law as a prayer area for non-Orthodox worship – have demonstrated, being “brothers” is not the same thing as enabling non-Orthodox world Jewry to feel comfortable to pray in their own manner and style at the Kotel.

Deputy World Zionist Organization head Yizhar Hess, a former executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, was right when he called the government’s decision “shocking.”

“How can it be that such a large sum is being allocated to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, while the Ezrat Israel [egalitarian prayer site] remains shameful and abandoned,” Hess said. “This is a tremendous missed opportunity for democracy, equality and Zionism. Instead of repairing the tension with world Jewry by implementing the Kotel deal, they leave them empty-handed again.”

Cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo last week told representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements he favored allocations to upgrade the egalitarian prayer site, but implementing the 2016 agreement would take time.

We’ve reported on the reasons. Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has put improvements on the back burner because he fears implementing the long-stalled deal would play into the hands of the Likud and the other religious parties in the opposition, which would exploit it for political gain.

So while Israel can “stand united” with a proud Reform congregation in Texas, offering them equal prayer access and rights at Judaism’s holiest site remains only lip service.