Whatever Happened to Sharansky's Plan for the Western Wall?

A look at 10 key players in the dramatic, but ultimately abortive, plan to integrate women's prayer into one of Judaism's holiest sites.

It was a year ago this week that Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky unveiled his grand plan for a new “egalitarian” prayer space at the Western Wall. The idea was to provide non-Orthodox worshipers with a space of their own for co-ed prayer services, while at the same time to resolve the ongoing confrontations between ultra-Orthodox worshipers and Women of the Wall – the feminist group that holds monthly prayers at the site.

It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who tapped Sharansky for the job, under pressure from world Jewish leaders upset by the scenes of women in prayer shawls being detained by police at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

The Sharansky plan envisioned a new plaza that would be a natural extension of the existing gender-segregated prayer areas at the Kotel, to be located near the archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch. According to this plan, the mixed prayer space would be the same as the existing ones – in area, access and hours of operation.

The initial reactions were gushing: Finally, said supporters, here was an initiative aiming to wrest absolute control of the holy site from the ultra-Orthodox, and to recognize the rights of other Jews to pray as they saw fit.

It didn’t take long, however, for things to turn sour. The devil in the details soon began to emerge, new voices of opposition made themselves heard, and former sisters-in-arms eventually turned on one another. And so, a year down the road, the widely hailed Sharansky plan is no closer to fruition than it was back then, and is arguably in an even more precarious situation than ever.

The anniversary provides a good opportunity to look at some of the dramatic developments of the past year. Pushing and pulling in different directions, with varying degrees of success, these were some of the key players who influenced, or at least tried to influence, the course of events at the Wall:

Natan Sharansky: In retrospect, the Agency chair had the easy job: designing the blueprint for a plan that would overhaul existing rules for who gets to pray where and how at this holiest of sites. Fleshing out the blueprint with details and finding a formula that Jews of all walks of life could live with turned out to be the hard part. Fortunately for Sharansky, that part of the job has been assigned to someone else.

Avichai Mendelblit: The former chief military advocate general of the Israel Defense Forces had barely assumed his new post as cabinet secretary when the job of drafting recommendations based on the Sharansky plan was thrown in his lap. For the better part of the past year, Mandelblit has devoted countless hours to an almost-impossible task: trying to make outspoken feminists understand why they need to bow to ultra-Orthodox pressure and leave the traditional women’s section at the Wall, and at the same time, to convince the ultra-Orthodox that giving up their hitherto-unchallenged claims to the Kotel will be in their best interest.

If that weren’t enough, he’s had to address strong objections by Israel’s archaeologists to any changes that might affect the important excavations taking place in the vicinity, along with opposition from the Islamic Waqf, the Islamic trust which controls the Temple Mount, to any infrastructure changes that might affect access to the site. If it seems that Mendelblit's recommendations are always on the verge of being publicized but are not quite there yet, this might explain why.

Moshe Sobel: Just weeks after Sharansky announced his plan with great fanfare, a Jerusalem District Court judge handed down a groundbreaking ruling that was also a game-changer. In rejecting a request from police to ban some Women of the Wall activists from the site, Sobel ruled that it is not a violation of “local custom” or a provocation for women to wear prayer shawls or phylacteries, to pray aloud or to read from the Torah in the existing women’s section of the Western Wall – that is, unless the government decides to enforce new regulations deeming these practices unlawful.

Women of the Wall: After initially embracing the Sharansky plan, Women of the Wall reversed course. That was when the group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, understood that the scheme did nothing for some of her core constituents and supporters: Orthodox feminists. These women had no interest in and were in fact opposed to praying with men, and were adamant about using the women’s section of the Western Wall. The Sobel ruling only served to strengthen their determination.

A few months later, though, Hoffman did another about-face – this time after being warned that if she didn’t sit down at the negotiating table with Mendelblit, the consequences could be quite severe. Specifically, she was told that if no agreement were reached, the government would likely decide to draft new regulations outlawing certain practices at the Western Wall by women, such as wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries. Then, whatever hard-earned gains had been made in their struggle would be completely lost.

Original Women of the Wall (aka O-Wow): Hoffman’s decision talk with Mendelblit was endorsed by the Women of the Wall board. But she quickly realized that that didn’t mean the idea enjoyed the resounding support of all those who identified with the group’s struggle over the past 25 years. In fact, Hoffman’s willingness to consider a deal that might eventually force Women of the Wall out of the Kotel's existing women’s section was viewed as treason by quite a few of the founding members of the feminist group, in Israel and the United States. In response, they created their own organization, Original Women of the Wall, which has since hired a lawyer and a public relations firm to represent it in their battle against Hoffman et al.

Whatever decisions Hoffman and Women of the Wall make are not binding on us, they have told Mendelblit and anyone else who cares to listen. In recent weeks, O-Wow has been joined in its activities by Kolech, the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization.

Women For the Wall (aka W4W): Before there was O-Wow, there was W4W, a group of ultra-Orthodox women fiercely opposed to Women of the Wall and its feminist brand of Judaism. With the help and support of a group of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, the W4W contingent tried to organize protests each month at the Western Wall in order to crowd out Women of the Wall when its members arrived for the traditional Rosh Chodesh service (marking the beginning of each Hebrew month).

Recently, this opposition faction has more or less faded into oblivion, perhaps happy to sit on the sidelines as Women of the Wall members battle it out among themselves.

Shmuel Rabinowitz: The Western Wall rabbi, widely perceived as the nemesis of Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements, has long enjoyed having the final say when it comes to what goes on at the Western Wall. He has fought back against Women of the Wall to the best of his ability. Although the Sobel ruling prevents women from being arrested any more for praying aloud, donning prayer shawls and laying phylacteries at the holy site, the rabbi has found a way to prevent them from fulfilling at least one of their wishes: reading from the Torah there.

Under existing regulations, which supersede the Sobel stipulations, worshipers are not allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Western Wall. Those wishing to read from the Torah are asked to avail themselves of the many scrolls available in the men’s section. But when Women of the Wall activists have asked to use them, Rabinowitz has turned them down. Moreover, on more than one occasion, he permitted the use of megaphones in the men’s section while the women were holding their monthly service, in an attempt to drown them out.

Naftali Bennett: Among other roles, the leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party also serves as minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. This position allows him to throw his weight around when it comes to matters concerning the Western Wall – a site located at the epicenter of the holy city and which is of utmost significance to Diaspora Jewry. Such was the case when on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Bennett decided virtually on his own – without bring his idea to the cabinet for approval and without waiting for Mendelblit to publish his final recommendations – to create a ramp near Robinson’s Arch (the site designated for the new prayer plaza envisioned by Sharansky) to be used for co-ed services by the Conservative and Reform movements.

For those skeptics who may wonder why an Orthodox Jew like Bennett would invest so much time and energy in accommodating the needs of the non-Orthodox, here’s one idea making the rounds: According to various sources in the know, Bennett is interested in bringing as many Jews as possible to the Wall, not so much because he cares about the site itself but because it’s his way of staking a claim on what’s above it: namely, the Temple Mount.

Reform and Conservative movements: Representatives of these movements in Israel, acting on behalf of their much larger bases of support overseas, have been actively involved in all phases of the negotiations concerning women at the Western Wall, and also appear to have a surprising amount of sway with the powers-that-be. Pressure they put to bear on Hoffman, it seems, is what ultimately convinced her to part ways with her Orthodox and other more militant sisters, and to sit down at the negotiating table.

Elad – City of David Foundation: A deal that would involve handing over control of the southern section of the Western Wall, the designated site of the planned egalitarian plaza, to this right-wing settler group almost put an end to the entire Sharansky plan a few weeks ago. Elad had been on the verge of assuming the management of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the Davidson Center, which includes the entire southern expanse. But after receiving a furious letter from leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, who were appalled that the deal had not been mentioned to them, Mendelblit notified them that he intended to block it. The Jerusalem Magistrates Court has yet to issue an official ruling on the matter.

Moti Milrod