Conservative, Reform rabbis: Robinson’s Arch transfer plan ‘infuriating and unacceptable’

This week has seen a fair bit of news on the heretofore confidential negotiations surrounding the future of Robinson’s Arch, the area of the Western Wall open to non-Orthodox prayer.

The Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, along with women’s prayer group Women of the Wall, have been negotiating for months with the Israeli government on a plan to expand the site. The expansion, first proposed by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky last year, aimed at solving interdenominational controversy that had previously erupted at the wall.

The negotiations suffered something of a crisis this week, though, as Haaretz reported that the Israeli government planned to transfer control of Robinson’s Arch to the City of David (or Ir David) Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit that manages the City of David historical tourist site and which works to expand the Jewish presence in the mostly Palestinian east Jerusalem village of Silwan.

The planned deal sparked outrage among the Conservative and Reform movements, whose leaders sent a strongly worded letter to Israeli Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit today protesting the decision. Women of the Wall also sent a letter protesting the draft agreement.

The Conservative and Reform movements have long pushed for pluralism at the wall, but this letter strikes a particularly harsh tone. And it seems to have worked: in its wake, Mandelblit said he plans to block the draft agreement.

Here is the text of the letter in full:

Dear Secretary Mandelblit:

We write to express our shared concern about information reported in the media that the government is in the final stages of negotiations to award to the Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) the governance of areas of the Old City, including the Southern section of the Western wall, over which we have been in extended negotiations. We were, as you could well imagine, shocked and dismayed to learn this news for mutiple reasons.

First and foremost, the fact that this possibility was never raised and that it pertained directly to the issues of our negotiation is most concerning.

Second, one of the primary issues of our negotiation, from the earliest stages of the Sharansky plan, was that religious governance and authority over the site would be granted to duly appointed religious leaders of the Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements, to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister or his designates. Almost every aspect of this important principle was scaled back during the negotiation – Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements could not be acknowledged explicitly in the regulations, we could not serve officially, we could only be advisors to a government body, we could not receive funds to educate and publicize our presence. Surely you will understand that we would like to know why the Government of the State of Israel does not accept our legitimacy to form a governance body, but find the Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) suitable to do this and much more. The Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements are organizations with continuous and consistent philosophy and governance spanning well over a century. We represent the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Diaspora and are the backbone of pro-Israel advocacy for our Jewish national homeland.

What this news demonstrates to us is that we must protect the singular goals that the proposed negotiation regarding the Kotel site are meant to advance – the recognition of egalitarian, pluralistic prayer available to all Jewish people. The pending appointment of Ir David Foundation (Amutat EL-AD) only demonstrates and reinforces for us what we knew all along – that without actual religious and practical governance over the site we are vulnerable to become the intended or unintended victims of political changes, political deals and other interests. These interests will not allow us to fulfill our primary mission – to create a place at the Kotel where non-Orthodox Jews, and non-extremist Orthodox Jews can pray without fear of physical or verbal harassment and attack. It is a shamefully modest goal, and therefore, demoralizing and demeaning that we are so reduced in the negotiation even on these points. It is infuriating and unacceptable to find that while this negotiation was going on, other negotiations were taking place to put us under the authority of a group with a right wing Orthodox religious point of view.

We see today that in our desire to achieve an amicable outcome to a long and bitter conflict among the Jewish people which has further estranged non-Orthodox Jews from the State of Israel, we have left our people too vulnerable. Only in an arrangement which guarantees the governance of the prayer space by our own representatives can we hope to create a lasting solution. We are Jews and we are one family, so notwithstanding the depth of this disappointment, we look forward to restarting and renewing our conversations with you regarding our role in the governance of the space, so that we, and the Prime Minister, can fulfill our moral obligations to the personal integrity of every Jew to pray in a manner that is acceptable to them and respectful of others.

Respectfully yours,
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld – Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Steven Wernick – Executive Vice President and CEO, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik – President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Yizhar Hess, Esq. – Executive Director and CEO, The Masorti Movement in Israel
Rabbi Rick Jacobs – President, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Steven A. Fox – CEO, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Richard Block – President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi David Saperstein – Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – Executive Director, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
Representing the leadership of the Masorti/Conservative and Reform Movements

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.