Western Wall crisis transcends Israel-Diaspora relations

This is a climactic moment in a period of growing alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month the government jettisoned a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, signifying the deepening disenfranchisement of non-Orthodox Jews from the Jewish world as Israel defines it. The decision strikes at Reform and Conservative values of gender and denominational pluralism, sparking a controversy playing out in parallel to young Jewish American activists – no longer able to square their Judaism with occupation – landing in the South Hebron Hills to help defend Palestinians against eviction.
This is a climactic moment in a period of growing alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Because the Western Wall controversy coalesces with promotion of a bill to grant the Chief Rabbinate hegemony over Jewish conversions in Israel, critics have focused their indignation on the government’s capitulation to ultra-Orthodox forces.
While the Orthodox establishment has clearly been a principal force in this battle, it is a mistake to think the prime minister is solely motivated by the need to pacify the coalition’s religious parties.
The less publicized but equally potent dynamic at play is the government’s untiring indulgence of the settler movement, which wields disturbing influence in policy making over holy sites in the Historic Basin – the Palestinian neighborhoods around the perimeter of the Old City in which the holy sites are centered, and therefore the locus of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox branch of the settler movement’s mission to redeem the land of Israel.
A chief actor in thwarting the Western Wall deal has been Mati Dan, who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to exert pressure on rabbis against what he sells as a disastrous plan negotiated behind their backs. He was the first to respond to a call from the religious-Zionist Liba Center, which WhatsApped its base to encourage followers to overwhelm the area reserved for egalitarian prayer with Orthodox services. He threatened to rally his troops – a call often leading to violence – against the Women of the Wall if they followed through on a planned prayer ceremony.
Mati Dan is not an Orthodox chief. He is the leader of Ateret Cohanim, one of the two most powerful settler groups in Jerusalem today. Among his credits, Dan used his impressive political connections to bring a planning committee discussion on an Old City master plan to a halt minutes after it started.
The plan would have significantly increased access to building permits for Palestinians in the Old City, progressively under threat by settlers like Dan who use state backing to advance evictions for the most minor of building code infractions, e.g. hanging an air conditioner in the wrong place.
Today Ateret Cohanim is advancing the largest settler takeover of a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem since 1967. With the aid of the Construction and Housing Ministry, which allocates near NIS 100 million a year to ensure the safety of private settlers parachuting into the hearts of Palestinian neighborhoods, it is pushing the eviction of some 600 Palestinian men, women and children from their homes. Batan al-Hawa, site of the campaign, sits in Silwan, just across the street from the Western Wall Plaza.
The Western Wall – located in east Jerusalem and therefore on yet-to-be-negotiated land – cannot be disconnected from its environs and wider political significance. In bowing to the likes of Mati Dan, the government is serving the settler agenda, ultimately in service to its own. These radical settlers function as proxies of the state whose bodies constitute new facts on the ground that enable Israel’s consolidation of power in the Historic Basin, in advance and at the expense of negotiations for a fair and agreed political resolution on Jerusalem and the conflict as a whole.
For decades, the state has empowered settler groups to dispossess Palestinians of their land and homes. Now that power is being wielded against Reform and Conservative Jews, further driving a wedge between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.
To help bridge that gulf, we must not only fight together for religious pluralism in Israel but also against the government’s empowerment of settlers who are steadily gaining ground at the Western Wall, throughout the Old City in which it is centered and in the entire ring of Palestinian neighborhoods around its perimeter.
The existential issues playing out at the Western Wall transcend immediate concerns about Israel’s progressively narrowing definition of what it means to be a Jew; they relate to the larger existential threats to Israel posed by its sustained occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the diminishing viability of a two-state solution to the conflict.
The author is director of international relations and advocacy at Ir Amim, Israel’s longest-standing NGO focused on Jerusalem’s role in the conflict.