Opinion |

Israel, Don't Capitulate to the Extremists. Let All Jews Pray at the Western Wall

The Western Wall is a holy site for all Jews everywhere. It should reflect the true diversity of Jewish practice around the world. But by suspending, again, an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Bennett government is bowing to Israel’s most extreme voices, instead of standing up to them

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Members of Women of the Wall read from a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their Rosh Hodesh prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the Torah
Members of Women of the Wall read from a Torah scroll the group smuggled in for their prayers marking the new month at the Western Wall, where women are forbidden from reading from the TorahCredit: Maya Alleruzzo /AP

As a proud Jew, and as the head of one of the oldest Jewish-American organizations, I make a point of coming to pray at the Kotel – the Western Wall – during my visits to Israel. It is one of the few places which allows me to reflect on my personal life and professional challenges, while being in the presence of a symbol of Jewish longing and Jewish continuity that has inspired our people for thousands of years.

I was therefore dismayed that, in the face of incitement and violent threats from extremist voices within the Haredi community, several senior Israeli government officials have called for yet another suspension of the so-called Kotel Compromise that would create a more open and welcoming egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

While opinion polls in Israel show that most Israelis don’t consider this issue as one of great concern, I can tell you that it is an issue of great importance to Jews around the world.

It is disturbing that many Jews visiting the Kotel today are still unable to worship in accordance with their religious practices and beliefs, reflecting the true diversity of Jewish practice around the world. This includes non-Orthodox Jews, who desire an egalitarian prayer space that is no less visible and comfortable than the main Kotel prayer area. Some religious groups, including the Women of the Wall, have even been subjected to discrimination and violence when they come to pray at the Kotel, simply because of their varied forms of religious practice.

A member of the Women of the Wall clutches a Torah scroll, as she is surrounded by Israeli security forces holding back ultra-Orthodox protesters at the Western Wall last monthCredit: Maya Alleruzzo /AP

This experience of sometimes violent exclusion is unfortunately part of broader trend of discrimination by extremist Haredi politicians and rabbis who seek to maintain a religious monopoly on Jewish issues and Jewish practice across Israel. And it is a trend that speaks directly to the lack of respect for the diversity of Jewish life and practice among Jews of all backgrounds.

The issue of egalitarian space at the Kotel is not news. For those who don’t recall, back in 2011, a special government committee was formed to study the egalitarian Kotel prayer space issue, comprised of religious, political and societal leaders, and headed by my friend Natan Sharansky, then chairman of the Jewish Agency.

After several years of discussions, the committee proposed an arrangement known as the Kotel Compromise, which would have doubled the size of the egalitarian prayer space, created a more prominent and visible entrance, and allowed non-Orthodox religious leaders to have a say in overseeing the site.

Initially, the plan was endorsed by then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, which included several Haredi politicians. Though once the agreement was announced, Haredi politicians, who were subjected to heavy public pressure including from influential rabbis, pulled their support and the Compromise collapsed.

This was truly a devastating moment for Jewish communities in various parts of the world, mainly in the U.S., which resulted in increased tensions between Diaspora Jewry and Israel.

For my vantage point, not only had Israel missed an important opportunity to extend its hand to Diaspora Jewry – the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox – and create an appropriate egalitarian space at the Kotel, more disturbingly, the agreement’s cancelation resulted in increased hostility toward non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel.

Ultra-Orthodox protestors held back from disrupting a prayer meeting of an egalitarian prayer group by border police at the Western WallCredit: Michal Fattal

They became targets of verbal and physical abuse, and their prayer services subjected to deliberate and planned disturbances. We have seen awful images and videos of Women of the Wall members and other non-Orthodox Jews fending off physical attacks by extremist Jews while trying to pray on Rosh Hodesh simply because their practices differed from Orthodox ones.

As a pluralistic Jew who strongly believes in the importance of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel, and as someone who is greatly concerned about the distancing of the younger generation of American Jews from Israel, I can attest that these images negatively affect the sense of belonging and affinity many Diaspora Jews have to Israel.

Graffiti sprayed over the walls of the building where a Women of the Wall participant lives: 'We will come after you...Women of the Wall are abominations'Credit: Michal Fattal

And it’s not just about the Kotel. The Haredi Rabbinate’s continued monopoly over lifecycle matters in Israel – including Jewish marriage and conversions – is also disheartening for non-Orthodox Jews who care about Israel. When Jews in the Diaspora are subjected to antisemitism, no one cares about their denominational affiliation. These distinctions and inequalities exist only within the Jewish people, and are unfortunately negatively manifested in the lack of acceptance of non-Orthodox streams in Israel.

The current situation at the Kotel is one that should have been resolved years ago. The Bennett government’s initial openness to the Kotel Compromise was a welcome change from years of tensions. Implementing the plan would represent an important step towards a broad recognition and understanding that Jewish identity is multifaceted, and that the Jewish communal tent is broad enough to accommodate a wide variety of beliefs and practices.

As tensions continue to rise around the Kotel issue, it is very disheartening that the government appears to have capitulated once again to Israeli society’s most extreme voices instead of standing up to them. Failure to resolve this issue will only lead to increased tensions with global Jewry, and sadly possible further incitement, and, even violence on the ground.

I strongly urge Prime Minister Bennett’s government to not suspend the Kotel Compromise and move quickly to implement this well-crafted and important plan. Doing so would send an unequivocal message to both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry that no one has a monopoly on Jewish practice, and that all are welcome to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Twitter: @JGreenblattADL

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