Analysis

Why the ultra-Orthodox Rebelled on the Western Wall Prayer Space Deal

Vacuum in ultra-Orthodox leadership is the biggest problem facing the community

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Ariel Schalit/AP

The faces of the 30 people celebrating their children's Bar Mitzvahs Thursday at the southern plaza of the Western Wall did not reveal the huge storm that had erupted there last week.

Since the government decided to freeze the plan for an egalitarian prayer space, the American Jewish community has declared an emergency and launched a fight. Their anger is directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say surrendered to pressure by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers. The big question is what caused those ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) MKs, who just 18 months ago had silently approved the plan, to make a 180-turn and demand it be shelved.

According to people involved in the issue, the answer reveals an important fact with far-reaching significance for public life in Israel: a vacuum in the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

To explain, we need to go back to January 29, 2016, two days before the government approved the Kotel plan. Chief Rabbi David Lau received a call from Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi). “On Sunday we’re going to vote on the Kotel plan. I want to know what you think.” Rabbi Lau knew nothing about the plan. Two days later, on January 31, then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit presented the plan to the government.

Meanwhile, people from Lau’s office were looking closely at the plan. And they were shocked. A few days later, Lau savaged the plan in the media.

Officials we spoke to said Lau opposed the plan because it had been promoted by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch behind his back. According to people close to Lau, though, that’s silly. “If they had brought the plan to him, he wouldn’t have given it his blessing – because of its content. The plan is disproportionate to the problem. It’s a matter of a few women who come to the Kotel for two hours a month. For that they have to have a whole plaza?”

The vacuum is seemingly being filled by Haredi nationalists from the Liba Center – an organization that works to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel – and by Mati Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva.

“One day after the plan was passed, we were sitting and checking the fine print,” said Yehuda Vald, a member of the Liba Center. “We realized the implications in terms of recognition of the Reform Jews and we saw the joy of Yizhar Hess and Gilad Kariv,” he said, referring to the directors of the Conservative movement and the Reform movement in Israel, respectively. "The Haredim tried to pass it quietly; we went out and started a fire,” Vald added.

Liba Center members met with rabbis, politicians and public opinion leaders. “When we got to the rabbis, we realized they didn’t know the details. They were in shock,” he recalled.

They went on Haredi websites, which didn’t give the ultra-Orthodox politicians a moment’s peace, with headlines, biting op-eds and massive coverage on the positions of rabbis who were against the plan. At the same time, supporters of the plan fielded no key Orthodox figure to come out in favor of it, and the Haredi politicians toed the line. “We had to pass it quickly and we didn’t notice the details,” MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) told Haaretz. “A few days later, when we realized what the plan said, we demanded immediately that it be stopped.”

Opponents of the plan had to raise a great deal of money for a campaign that included ads, events, prayers and legal aid. One individual estimated the cost at about 300,000 to 400,000 shekels ($86,000 to $115,000). The sources of the funding remained confidential.

“Everything was discrete,” the individual said, adding that Mati Dan raised the funds from overseas contributors.

In closed conversations, people close to the affair said the current saga reveals the Haredi public’s key problem today: lack of leadership.

“There’s nobody who bangs on the table and everyone comes to attention. Those days are over,” said one individual who knows the Haredi rabbinical powers. After Rabbi Shteinman [the 103-year-old leader of the non-Hasidic, "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodox world] is no longer with us, the situation will get far worse,” he added.