The Western Wall: place of prayer or political protest? - opinion

There is stalemate in both these arenas with opposing sides pitted against each other in an endless cycle of confrontation and conflict.

 PRAYERS TAKE place at the Western Wall on Tisha Be’av, last year.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRAYERS TAKE place at the Western Wall on Tisha Be’av, last year.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It is not by chance that the precincts of the Temple Mount have been the focal point of the greatest highs and lows of Jewish history.

The very locus of Jewish spirituality, unity and redemption has also been the place of divisiveness, paganism and exile. Remarkably, both Temples, as we commemorate this week, were destroyed on Tisha Be’av as society in the Land of Israel disintegrated.

We are struggling today with many divisive issues that touch on the essence of Jewish destiny. The cohesive fiber of Israeli and Jewish society is being tested, both in terms of the toxic process of seemingly never-ending elections as well as ongoing protests at the place of prayer at the Western Wall.

There is stalemate in both these arenas with opposing sides pitted against each other in an endless cycle of confrontation and conflict.

Never-ending elections

 Women of the Wall hold up a sign reading ''Prime Minister Lapid, implement the Western Wall outline!'' (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)
Women of the Wall hold up a sign reading ''Prime Minister Lapid, implement the Western Wall outline!'' (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)

Five elections in under four years is almost unheard of in democracy and is creating an untenable political environment. The ongoing elections not only cost billions and make sustainable governance impossible but are also having a corrosive effect on the country’s societal cohesion. When parties are in constant “election mode,” they remain forever focused on the failings and foibles of opponents leading to a continuous culture of criticism and condemnation.

The Western Wall

The same is true regarding the Western Wall (known in Hebrew as the Kotel) controversy. Supporters of the Western Wall Arrangement and those opposing it have been clashing for over 5 years with no solution in sight. The inability to find a harmonious and peaceful solution is deeply divisive. The monthly Rosh Hodesh confrontations of “progressive prayer protests” to upset the status quo and to protest against the stalled arrangement have required a strong police presence and caused civil unrest.

The response in recent years is now ultra-Orthodox counter “prayer protests” further exacerbating the situation. Most recently, the despicable actions of a few religious young men, tearing up prayer books, blowing their noses with pages of prayer books and disrupting bar mitzvahs at the Ezrat Yisrael section at Robinson’s Arch was harrowing. Although done by individuals and not in an organized way, it is part of the ongoing culture of confrontation that has been created at Judaism’s holiest place.

The fight at the Western Wall has become a zero-sum game. What is supposed to be a place of powerful heartfelt prayer has become one of partisan protests and provincial politics.

In both arenas, differences of opinion have become so intense that debates quickly descend into delegitimization, demonization and sometimes even blatant hatred. There is little respectful discourse, no basic sense of derech eretz (shared consideration) and civility in our political interactions. A deep sense of sectarianism is developing – “us and them.”

Sons of light and sons of darkness

Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, sectarianism reigned supreme. The nation divided itself into many distinct sects – the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Sicarii – and even more sub-sects. They saw the world in black and white terms; there was no middle road. You were either with me or against. The infighting in Jerusalem was so disastrous on the eve of destruction that Josephus described the society as “a great body torn in pieces.”

This was the causeless hatred that led to the destruction.

How do disagreements deteriorate into such deep hatred?

The Second Temple-era War Scroll, found in the caves of Qumran, suggests an answer. The text of one of the sects describes its followers as “sons of light” and all others as “sons of darkness.” This changes the rules of engagement – we are no longer debating ideas but rather delegitimizing the other as a person, vicious ad hominem attacks. All who think and act like me are “good” and those who don’t are “bad.” When I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong and others are totally disqualified and part of “the dark side,” we are treading close to the abyss of senseless hatred.

In need of a paradigm shift

Jewish resourcefulness and creativity can always find a way forward. The solution must begin with the realization that it lies outside the realm of power politics. It is rooted in a sense of camaraderie, mutual fate and destiny – ahavat Yisrael; in an unequivocal decision to preserve the Wall as a place of peaceful prayer. It has to begin with an agreement not to desecrate this sacred space by a culture of never ending “prayer protests,” police interventions, adversarial confrontations and verbal and physical abuse. Lo zo haderech – this is not the way. There is always legitimate room for politicking and protesting – however the Western Wall should not be the place.

If we don’t shift the paradigm, nothing will change. As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

If the aim is to use the Western Wall as a place of ongoing conflict for political gain then this is being achieved. If the aim is to restore peaceful prayer and find a harmonious solution, it can be achieved. The progressive streams should consider focusing their energies on upgrading the Ezrat Yisrael as a respectable place of prayer and less on fighting for political legitimacy and changes in overall management control and structural entrances from the plaza.

The Orthodox should focus on preserving the status quo of traditional halachic prayer customs at the mens and women’s prayer sections, which have been designated by the Chief Rabbinate as having the sanctity of a beit knesset and not protest the already existing prayer space of Ezrat Yisrael at Robinson’s Arch and ensure the safety and security of those who choose to pray there.

A remarkable historic transition has taken place in the selection of Doron Almog as the incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency. We at Mizrachi are privileged to have played a role in this decision. While there were other worthy candidates over the lengthy selection process, it became clear that only someone from outside the realm of politics had a chance of being selected as the incumbent would need a nine out of ten majority of an ideologically and politically diverse committee.

An inherently unifying figure needed to be found – a consensus builder. Doron Almog has dedicated his life to unifying causes – the IDF and children with special needs. Bringing this spirit of consensus which transcends politics affords the Jewish Agency leadership an opportunity to think out of the box of political provincialism.

Perhaps in the upcoming Israeli election the same spirit of consensus will prevail to end the cycle of “us and them” and the instability and tyranny of the flimsiest of majorities.

Perhaps as we approach Tisha Be’av when we mourn the Temple’s destruction we ought to reflect on Rabbi Kook’s powerful and prescient words “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love, with ahavat hinam.”

The writer, a rabbi, is executive chairman of World Mizrachi, a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization and committee member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.