Suspension of Western Wall deal leaves Jewish leaders feeling betrayed

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall, Nov. 2, 2016. (Screenshot from Twitter)

Ben Sales, JTA

They’ve tried strongly worded statements. They’ve tried private meetings with the prime minister. They’ve tried negotiations, protest and prayer.

But for the past five years, despite broad internal consensus and consistent pressure, the American Jewish establishment has been unable to persuade Israel’s government to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

The latest setback in that fight came Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiations among the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the Western Wall’s haredi Orthodox management.

Work to expand the egalitarian section will continue during the suspension, Netanyahu’s office said. But any new agreement would have to be negotiated by Israel’s Cabinet and come to a new vote before moving forward.

The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s haredi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but have since railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism and, at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”

Now the American Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement say they feel betrayed by Netanyahu. They will be meeting in Israel this week to discuss a response, and the Jewish Agency will hold a special session Monday to discuss the issue. But no leaders committed to concrete plans for a response, beyond continued vocal protest.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA on Sunday. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

Advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the collapse of the deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, Jacobs expressed strong disappointment in the suspension, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. He cited a list of recent Israeli government decisions opposed by the Reform movement, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the State of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he said. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the State of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013 seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.

Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld believes the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands. 

The Prime Minister’s office did not response until Monday afternoon, when it released a statement saying it was working to ensure that Jews of all streams can feel comfortable praying at the wall.

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman said in the statement that Netanyahu had issued a directive instructing that work be expedited to create a comfortable egalitarian section to the south of the Western Wall plaza. A small prayer area near that site, known as Robinson’s Arch, has been in use since 2000.

Braverman said Netanyahu had issued a directive that “Jews from all streams be able to continue praying there – as they are able to do today.”

Leaders of Diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall group originally sought a space at the familiar Western Wall plaza to the north of Robinson’s Arch where women and men could pray together and women could wear tallitot and yarmulkes and pray from a Torah scroll. The January 2016 compromise called for a larger and more permanent prayer space to the south of the plaza, a single entrance to the entire Western Wall complex, a pluralistic joint committee to oversee the southern area and a budget to pay for it.

Mike Minoff, an economist who has organized events in support of Israel in St. Louis, said he does not understand why people felt the need to create a new egalitarian prayer space, given that there was already the area before Robinson’s Arch. 

“There is already so much hatred towards Jews and Israel, and to give people that hate us even more ammunition seems pretty silly to me,” said Minoff, who belongs to Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an Orthodox congregation in Olivette.

Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall prayer group, called the decision “shameful to the government and its women ministers who were exposed using their vote against women.”

“Women of the Wall will continue to pray as we always have in the women’s section at the Western Wall, with a Torah scroll and prayer shawls, until women’s equality will be established at the Kotel,” Hoffman said.

She visited St. Louis in June 2015 and served as a scholar in residence at Congregation Shaare Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Creve Coeur.

Netanyahu’s decision is “deeply distressing to all of the clergy at Shaare Emeth, as well as our membership,”
said Rabbi Andrea Goldstein. “The Wall should be a holy space for all Jews, and non-Orthodox Jews should be able to pray at the Kotel in ways that are authentically meaningful to them.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and one of two Cabinet members to vote against the decision to freeze the agreement, said in a statement that it “constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities, and the fabric of relations between the State of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.”

Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, spoke in English at the beginning of his party’s faction meeting in order to reach the Jewish Diaspora, particularly U.S. Jews, he said.

“I want to tell you that the vast majority of the citizens of Israel oppose the two decisions taken yesterday by the government,” he said, referring to the Western Wall decision and a separate conversion bill that would solidify conversions in Israel under the authority of the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party leader Arye Deri, who opposes the Western Wall compromise, said during his party’s meeting that dividing the Western Wall “destroys Jewish unity.”

“We have nothing against Jews, in any place they may be. They are all our brothers,” he said. “Our fight is against the approach, this ideology which is attempting to bring a new Judaism here, is trying to destroy everything that we built here over the years.”

A range of other groups criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, was one of the architects of the 2016 agreement.

Jewish Light Staff Writer Eric Berger contributed to this story.