The Unknown Compromise Near the Western Wall

The Women of the Wall's struggle for access to the Kotel puts them at odds with the Conservative movement, which accepted a plan to pray in egalitarian services at Robinson's Arch - seen by many as a blueprint for compromise.

There are those who see it a "pluralistic Kotel boutique," while others will view it as a humiliating compromise over the "last row of the bus."

While everyone is talking about the establishment of an egalitarian section without rabbinical supervision at the southern wall of the Temple Mount, such a section already exists in practice without most of the public knowing about it.

Every week day, but primarily on Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah is read publicly, the archeological park that includes Robinson's Arch is opened for groups to pray, most of them coming to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah.

The Conservative movement, which holds prayer services there, says there are now some 700 such services a year held in the archeological park, with some 20,000 participants, most if not all of them Jewish tourists from the United States. They read from Torah scrolls, both men and women. They wrap themselves in prayer shawls, both men and women. And they put on tefilin, both men and women. They do so without any interference, without a mehitza (divider) separating men from women, without police.

But among the people coming to pray at the "Masorti Kotel" – as the Conservative movement's space has come to be known – there are also families who hold Orthodox services, and want to get away from the tumult of the Western Wall plaza, and without separating mothers from their sons who are celebrating their bar mitzvahs.

Last Thursday there were two bar mitzvah celebrations in the archeological park by Robinson's Arch: One of John Henry Feldman, who came especially from a tiny town named Steamboat Springs, Colorado, accompanied by a Reform rabbi. The second was the bar mitzvah of Sa'ar Alon from Modi'in. His mother, Tami Alon, said that after the family had negative experiences at the bar mitzvahs of their older sons at the Kotel, they decided to take the advice of the tutor who taught him to read from the Torah and have a family service at the quiet southern wall.

"We have bitter experiences with the central plaza. We women stood on chairs like monkeys so as to be able to see the bar mitzvah. We decided that was enough for us," she said.

The section of the southern wall is the continuation of the same western supporting wall of the Temple Mount. The site is defined as an archeological park and managed by the East Jerusalem Development Corporation, a government company, but the services there are run by the Masorti movement, the Israeli affiliate of the American Conservative movement. The movement keeps Torah scrolls at the site, along with prayer books, tables and chairs. If arrangements are made in advance for early morning hours, then entrance to the site is free, though there are frequently problems with the free admission.

A plan proffered by Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency for Israel chairman, and a previous plan from former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, relates to the situation at the "Masorti Kotel" as a pilot project. A basic principle of these plans is the operation of the site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Today the site is open for free only by making advance arrangements, and only for those who make sure to arrive between 6 a.m. and 9:15 a.m., and in limited numbers.

Historically, the Conservative movement was the first and only dream of Judaism to accept the compromise of praying at Robinson's Arch. On the Shavuot holiday exactly 16 years ago in 1997, a group of Conservative worshippers were violently attacked when they tried to hold a mixed gender prayer service at the Kotel. The incident marked the beginning of a period of conflict, but the Conservative movement soon adopted a more pragmatic line after the director of the movement, Rabbi Ehud Bendel, cooperated with a committee established by the first Netanyahu government, headed by Yaakov Neeman. The cooperation continued also under Ehud Barak's government, with cabinet secretary Isaac Herzog. The movement did not agree to forfeit its fight for a place in the central Kotel plaza, but did view the government's willingness to designate the southern wall area for prayer as a landmark recognition of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The Women of the Wall refused, and still refuse to accept, that compromise. To this day they demand to pray in the central Kotel plaza. Over the years they have been joined by the Reform movement, whose original and historic policy had been to renounce the use of the Kotel as a holy site. The compromise was later accepted as law by a High Court of Justice ruling on a petition from the Women of the Wall in 2003, which states that the government will prepare the site of Robinson's Arch within a year, and "then the Women of the Wall will be allowed to pray in their manner there," and "it will be possible to see it as an alternative to the Kotel plaza for prayer."

In reality it is only the Conservatives who accepted this compromise. The Women of the Wall continued to insist on praying in the main Kotel plaza, and only went to the Robinson's Arch site every month to complete their service as they were prevented from reading from the Torah in the central plaza. Recently, as their public campaign has picked up momentum, the Women of the Wall have stopped going to Robinson's Arch completely out of fear it will weaken their struggle.

Despite all the streams presenting a united front against the government over the Kotel issue, the other denominations hold the matter of Robinson's Arch against the Conservatives. The Women of the Wall are convinced that if the united front had remained firm 10 or 15 years ago, the gates of the main Kotel plaza would already have been opened to them and all the other non-Orthodox streams. But the Conservatives are convinced that Netanyahu would not have encouraged expanding the solutions and the de facto recognition of the pluralistic prayer area, if not for the successful pilot they have been carrying out.

Yizhar Hess, the director of the Masorti Movement and a lawyer, is convinced that his movement's pragmatic stand has contributed to the status of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. The recent official committee on setting policy for Daylight Savings Time invited representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements as official representatives – something that was inconceivable a decade ago, said Hess.

While ten years ago only a few hundred people came every year to pray at the Masorti Kotel, "today 20,000 Jews a year come here, and our calendar is full years in advance," said Hess. "We demand that the general plaza be open to all, and we are not giving up on this. For us, the compromise is a necessary evil, but it has expanded and improved over the years. We are responsible for the breakthrough that says it is possible to prepare an alternative place were the Jewish People can have their say," he added.

"We agreed to the historic compromise since it is impossible to say no to every compromise. Today it turns out that this is the dowry of the Conservative Movement, and we are willing to give it with love to other denominations," said Hess. "It was our historic role, to give birth to this. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars here, we brought Torah scrolls, we provided services to Jews of all denominations, also Reform," he added.

The Reform movement and the Women of the Wall prefer not to air their dispute with the Conservative movement in public, which also might be shooting themselves in the foot. But a central figure in the Kotel struggle said he is convinced that the Conservatives' agreement to accept the Neeman compromise at Robinson's Arch weakened the Women of the Wall's case in the High Court of Justice, and led to their defeat in court in 2003. "The Conservatives blinked in the midst of battle only so they could pray in an archeological park," he said.

Dr. Kobi Cohen-Hattab of the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar-Ilan University, who has studied conflict at the Kotel in modern times, tends to accept the Conservatives' claims. "At the end of the public struggle that a number of various movements took part in, it is the Masorti movement who for the first time put into action the recognition and the right to freedom of non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall, even if they did not realize this right completely at the central plaza," he said.

Michal Fattal
AP
Emil Salman