A senior representative of Israel's government tried to reassure world Jewish leaders on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains committed to the recently suspended Western Wall agreement, which was intended to provide non-Orthodox Jews with an upgraded egalitarian prayer space at the holy site. They didn’t buy it, though.
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“What we understood is that the few crumbs the government has said it will throw our way it will continue to throw our way,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, summing up the meeting. “We said, I believe loudly and clearly, that those crumbs are unacceptable and the unilateral declaration that there will be some minor improvement will not meet the approval of Diaspora Jewry or those here in the State of Israel.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, deputy minister for regional cooperation and a close confidant of the prime minister, met with Jacobs and other members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, hoping to convince them of the need to make further compromises. Hanegbi had been asked by Netanyahu to find a way to resolve the crisis with Diaspora Jewry that was sparked by the Western Wall controversy.
In January 2016, the government approved an agreement to provide the Reform and Conservative movements with an upgraded, egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern side of the Western Wall. Under that arrangement, the plaza would be as accessible as the existing area for gender-segregated worship on the northern side.
The agreement also called for establishing a special authority to administer the egalitarian prayer space, whose members were to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.
Hanegbi told the delegation of Jewish leaders that the government intends to invest millions of dollars in upgrading the makeshift plaza currently used for mixed-gender services, in the area known as Robinson’s Arch. He said the government would also take into consideration the demand that the egalitarian space be fully visible and accessible to visitors to the Western Wall. It is currently hidden behind a tall fence and accessible only by stairs; there are no signs at the entrance to the Western Wall indicating its location.
But Hanegbi rejected out of hand the demand of the Reform and Conservative movements that the permanent plaza for egalitarian worship will share an entrance with the gender-segregated area, as had initially been agreed on by the government. “
"There is not going to be one entrance,” he said, “and I don’t think that the Jewish people were praying for 3,500 years for there to be one. In our view, what’s important is that hundreds of thousands of Jews have a place here where they can be comfortable praying.”
Hanegbi accused the Reform and Conservative movements of refusing invitations to restart negotiations, fearing it might jeopardize their case against the government in the Supreme Court.
Along with Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the Supreme Court a year ago, demanding that the government either fulfill the so-called original “Kotel deal” or re-divide the gender-segregated prayer space to make room for non-Orthodox worshippers. The petition was submitted before the government officially voted to suspend the agreement.
Members of the delegation shot back that it was the ongoing delays in implementing the arrangement that ultimately forced the movements to take their case to court.
“Today, unfortunately, we heard fake facts and fake news,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, dismissed the plans outlined by Hanegbi for upgrading the existing egalitarian prayer area as inconsequential. “The issue is much more complex than just having a space we’ve already had access to for about 25 years,” he said. “The issue is about legitimization and recognition.”
Speaking with Haaretz, Hanegbi said that if such were the key demands of the non-Orthodox groups, “that is not going to happen very soon.”
The meeting at the Wall, which was organized by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, was held in the makeshift egalitarian prayer space. After Hanegbi departed, Sharansky said he was not deeply disappointed by the outcome because he hadn’t come with high hopes.
“He said more or less what I expected,” said Sharansky.