In recent months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers have been hard at work creating a new narrative about the so-called Western Wall deal – what it included, what went wrong and who’s to blame.
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Reform and Conservative Jews have long had a place to hold their own egalitarian-style prayer services at the Western Wall, this narrative goes, so why are we being attacked for backtracking on a commitment to give them one? All we really ever promised, according to this new take on events, was to make the existing space a lot prettier, and that is something we are getting to work on right away.
Netanyahu skillfully weaved this narrative into the speech he delivered via satellite on Tuesday at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. “The 2016 decision wasn’t to create a prayer space,” he told the not-very-large audience in attendance. “It was to improve the existing space. We’re moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope and I’m working to make sure that this happens.”
Declaring that prayer arrangements at the Western Wall were “vitally important to me personally,” Netanyahu insisted that what the government had voted to suspend in June were “only the most ideologically charged elements of the Western Wall plan.” These, he said, “were holding all the practical elements hostage.”
Correct or not?
It is correct that Reform and Conservative Jews have had their own prayer space at the Western Wall for quite a few years now. But they never considered this space, located near an archeological excavation site known as Robinson’s Arch, to be satisfactory – and not only because of the way it looked. It was to address their grievances that Netanyahu asked Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to draft a plan for a new space back in 2013, and the design was to make clear to Reform and Conservative Jews that their Judaism was just as respected in Israel as Orthodoxy. Sharansky’s plan, which Netanyahu warmly embraced, served as the blueprint for the eventual Western Wall deal.
If the purpose of the plan had been to only improve the existing egalitarian space, as Netanyahu now insists, the government wouldn’t have needed to spend three and a half years in negotiations with the non-Orthodox movements and with Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group. In fact, it wouldn’t have needed any negotiations at all. It could simply have started a bidding process for renovation work and gone with the best offer.
As far as most Diaspora Jews were concerned, the heart and soul of the Western Wall deal lay in the very elements that Netanyahu is now trying to dismiss as trivial. In fact, these “ideologically charged” elements, as he now defines them, represented the bulk of the 40-page document approved by his government back in January 2016.
What were the elements that Netanyahu and his advisers are now writing off as non-essential?
Accessibility: According to the January 2016 agreement, the new and improved egalitarian prayer space on the southern side of the Western Wall would have shared a common entryway with the existing gender-segregated prayer space on the northern side. Currently, Conservative and Reform Jews are forced to use an out-of-the-way entrance to access the egalitarian space. The common entryway was meant to signify that all the denominations in Judaism are equally important.
Visibility: According to the January 2016 agreement, the new and improved egalitarian prayer space would have enjoyed the same visibility as the existing gender-segregated area. While the gender-segregated spaces have always been in full view of visitors to the Western Wall, the existing egalitarian space is hidden behind a high fence topped with barbed wire. By making the egalitarian space fully visible, the government would have signified that all the denominations in Judaism are equally important.
Representation: According to the January 2016 agreement, a new authority would have been created to administer the new and improved egalitarian space. Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall, would have sat on that authority. By appointing members of the non-Orthodox denominations to the authority, the government of Israel would have effectively granted Reform and Conservative Judaism full recognition at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
In their new take on events, Netanyahu and his advisors suggest that Reform and Conservative Jews are acting like spoiled little children for insisting on these “ideological” elements instead of sufficing with the more important, “practical” changes they are committed to implementing right away.
For Reform and Conservative leaders, though, these “ideological” elements were the main reason they spent three and a half years negotiating the deal.
As for the physical improvements to the egalitarian space – the gist of the agreement, as Netanyahu insists – that the government, as he says, is “moving forward with”:
* Days after his government voted to suspend the Western Wall deal in late June, Netanyahu was already promising to embark on renovations right away. When a delegation of Jewish Agency Board of Governors members visited the egalitarian space a few weeks ago, they were shocked to discover that not even one stone had been moved from its place over the past four months.
* Netanyahu insists he is committed to the part of the Western Wall agreement pertaining to physical changes at the existing egalitarian space. The only problem is that the agreement never detailed what these physical changes would be. All it determined was the boundaries of the upgraded space and where the new entryway would be located. During the negotiations, the Reform and Conservative movements had requested a detailed plan for renovations to be included in the agreement, but Netanyahu insisted on postponing such decisions until after the agreement was approved.