Israel Sends Mixed Messages on Western Wall Deal, but Plans to Implement Parts of It

Israel’s cabinet secretary tells non-Orthodox religious leaders the state will neither freeze compromise agreement nor push ahead at full force

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Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel, last year.
Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel, last year.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Israeli government does not intend to freeze the Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the Conservative and Reform movements with a proper egalitarian space and official status at the Jewish holy site. But neither does it plan to push ahead with it at full force.

This conflicting message was conveyed to leaders of the non-Orthodox movements, as well as to representatives of the government and Jewish communities in the Diaspora, at a meeting held on Monday with Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appointed Shlomo to represent the government in negotiations over the deal’s future. The deal has been a source of great tension between Israel and world Jewry in recent years.

This meeting was the first convened by Shlomo on the issue since rumors began circulating that the Bennett government had resolved to wash its hands of the agreement.

The government headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approved the Kotel deal, as it is known, in January 2016. However, it suspended implementation a year-and-a-half later under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

According to sources present at Monday’s meeting, Shlomo expressed the government’s genuine willingness to move ahead quickly with certain physical changes at the existing egalitarian prayer plaza aimed at improving the prayer experience at the site.

Women of the Wall praying in the Kotel plaza in Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal

A large boulder fell from the Western Wall right near the egalitarian prayer space, located next to the archeological site known as Robinson’s Arch, in 2018. Because of ongoing repairs, which dragged on much longer than anticipated, worshippers at the egalitarian space have been forced to distance themselves from the actual wall. At the meeting, Shlomo indicated that the Prime Minister’s Office planned to intervene to hasten the repair work, which has been held up for bureaucratic reasons, so that non-Orthodox worshippers could once again stand in touching distance of the stones.

Ongoing attempts by Orthodox groups to encroach on their territory in order to push them out pose another key challenge to worshippers at the egalitarian prayer plaza. Such attempts evolved into violent clashes on the eve of Tisha b’Av – the annual fast marking the destruction of the two ancient temples. Young yeshiva students showed up in large numbers at the egalitarian space, set up a mechitzah (barrier) to separate men from women and tried to drown out the megillah-reading service of members of the Conservative movement gathered there. This was not the first time that members of Orthodox groups opposed to the Western Wall deal put up their own mechitzahs at the egalitarian space.

Shlomo indicated to his interlocutors at Monday’s meeting that the government would support a total ban on mechitzahs at the egalitarian space to avoid such future confrontations.

Both these changes, he said, could be implemented in the near future.

But other key elements of the Western Wall deal, he warned, would have to be put on hold. The government was not keen on moving ahead at this stage, Shlomo said, with plans to build one single entry to the Western Wall, as proposed in the original deal, in place of the current two separate entries. The one single entry would symbolize the equal status of all the Jewish denominations at the Western Wall.

Neither, he said, was the government interested in advancing the proposal to set up a new statutory authority, with representatives of the non-Orthodox movements on its board, to oversee the egalitarian prayer section. As far as the non-Orthodox movements are concerned, having a place at this particular table is as close as they could have expected to get in achieving formal state recognition.

Ultra-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Meeting participants were told that implementation of these elements of the deal would have to wait until after the government overcomes the latest hurdle it faces on matters of religion and state: passing a new law regulating Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana has been drafting a bill that would strip the Chief Rabbinate of its monopoly on conversion, sparking significant opposition within Israel’s religious establishment.

This meeting was Shlomo’s second with Reform and Conservative leaders, as well as leaders of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group. For the first time, a Diaspora Affairs Ministry official, as well as Rebecca Caspi, director-general of the Israel office of the Jewish Federations of North America attended. Her participation indicates that the Kotel remains a high-stake issue for the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora.

Following the meeting, the Reform movement in Israel stated: “We appreciate the fact that in these complicated days of a pandemic, the cabinet secretary found time to hold a meeting on this issue. In the meeting, some of the immediate challenges concerning the Kotel were discussed: the violence and incitement against the Reform movement, the miserable state of the egalitarian prayer plaza and the need to correct this situation. We will continue with our monthly meeting in an effort to implement the deal.”

Rakefet Ginsburg, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, expressed cautious optimism. In a statement, she wrote: “As in our previous meeting, we found a friend in the Prime Minister’s Office. The cabinet secretary appears resolved to put an end to this ongoing and exhausting saga. In the meeting, different operational measures were discussed for advancing the Kotel deal, while serious concerns were raised about our relations with Diaspora Jewry, which have been increasingly unraveling. We hope and believe that alongside this goodwill demonstrated by the government, which is noteworthy, we can once and for all bring peace to the Jewish nation.”

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