Mixed Messages at the Western Wall: What's Happening With the Kotel Compromise?

After dozens of Haredim disrupt mixed prayer service in Kotel plaza, Netanyahu says he is committed to egalitarian prayer space.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters argue with Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters argue with Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016. Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated his commitment to an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, following ugly scenes at the Kotel on Thursday when dozens of Haredi protesters disrupted a prayer service by non-Orthodox Jews.

In what may have been his first words on the subject in Hebrew, Netanyahu said: “At a time when we are continuing in our efforts to reach a solution that will allow every Jew to feel at home at the Western Wall, there are those who would prefer to divide our people and even declare that other Jews are wicked or not Jews at all. We must reject these words and these inappropriate acts that are opposed to the fundamental spirit of the State of Israel.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, responded to Netanyahu’s comments. “As we have known throughout the generations, the Western Wall is the holiest site for the Jewish people and one of the values closest to the heart of every Jew,” he said. “At a time when we are acting to continue to preserve this holy place, when all the world is looking toward it in holiness and longing, there are those who would prefer to ... harm the holiness of the site and its purity, God forbid.”

It’s possible that a protest prayer service at Robinson’s Arch on Wednesday, organized by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim group and which included setting up a “mechitza” (a partition between men and women) in the area intended for mixed prayer, achieved the opposite of what was intended. It may have revived a cabinet decision on the Western Wall prayer compromise, after months in which it seemed the decision was being ignored and had become less and less relevant.

On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Reform and Conservative Jews worshipped at the upper Western Wall plaza. Their prayer service was led by a woman cantor, without a separation between men and women, with the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox people surrounded the worshippers and succeeded in disrupting the service by singing loudly, accompanied by curses, whistling, spitting and shoving. Some of the Haredim even snatched away the group’s prayer sheets, which contained an ancient version of the service – including the explicit name of God in Hebrew – tore them up and threw them down on the ground.

Police officers and Western Wall ushers stood watching without intervening or separating the two sides, and after 90 minutes the crowd dispersed with no injuries.

Before the service, the Religious Services Ministry’s legal adviser, Yisrael Pat, announced that neither Religious Services Minister David Azoulay nor the rabbi of the Western Wall had the authority under the holy sites regulations to prevent the mixed service.

The non-Orthodox denominations were returning the battleground to the Orthodox area – the Western Wall – in light of the crisis surrounding the cabinet decision on a compromise to establish an egalitarian prayer section at the southern expanse of the Kotel, which has yet to be implemented. Recent events that furthered non-Orthodox Jews’ frustrations were the police arrest of a leader of the Original Women of the Wall group for carrying a Torah scroll while praying at the Western Wall, and the High Court of Justice’s rejection of a petition to allow businesses to receive alternative kashrut supervision.

Thursday’s protest by Haredim may have been mostly spontaneous, but faced with the pictures from the Western Wall, Netanyahu condemned the attackers and noted his efforts to implement the Kotel compromise and his commitment to the non-Orthodox denominations in Judaism.

Mendelblit had approved Pat’s statement saying that the prayer service could not be stopped, after going over it meticulously. Mendelblit, who was cabinet secretary until a few months ago, headed the committee that worked for over three years to produce the Kotel compromise, until its approval by the cabinet four months ago.

While the legal opinion is based on legal decisions concerning the Kotel, Mendelblit and Pat are aware of the public pressure that the opinion could apply to the Haredi leadership, which wants to bury the proposal.

The permission to hold mixed prayer services in the upper part of the main plaza threatens to remove another section of the area from the control of Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. This will only increase the pressure on Rabinovitch and the Haredi leadership to agree to the original compromise, which it has thus far rejected.

Another concrete message came from the High Court last week, when it set June 30 as the latest date the government has to report to it on the progress being made on the compromise. If no answer is provided by then, the court could well rule in favor of the Original Women of the Wall, who have asked to be allowed to pray in the main women’s section, and read from Torah scrolls there.

It seems Rabinovitch has got the message, and asked the country’s chief rabbis and Azoulay to immediately discuss the implications of Mendelblit’s decision to allow mixed prayer in the upper plaza.

Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative Movement in Israel, said Thursday’s prayer service was the first in a series, and the movement will continue to hold these services for as long as the Kotel compromise is not guaranteed.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, said the prayer service was a message of determination in the face of the foot-dragging in implementing the compromise.