Sharansky 'Optimistic' on Resolving Western Wall Crisis

American Jewish leaders warned Netanyahu of a major crisis in relations with world Jewry if the controversy over the new egalitarian prayer space was not resolved.

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky says he is optimistic that the plan to create a new mixed-prayer space at the Western Wall will come to fruition.

“I’m an optimist by nature,” he told Haaretz on Thursday. “Beyond that, there is nobody in this government who understands better the need to nurture our relations with the Reform and Conservative movements than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it is clear that he is committed.”

On Wednesday, the prime minister met with a delegation of world Jewish leaders who expressed their deep concerns about the ongoing delays in executing the plan, which was approved by the government in January.  Netanyahu told them he remains committed to building a new egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, but said he was under pressure from the Orthodox parties in his coalition to modify certain elements of the plan they found objectionable.

As approved in the cabinet, the deal would provide access to the new egalitarian space through a common entrance with the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces. For the Conservative movement especially, this shared entryway was seen as a key element of the deal, symbolizing the equal status of all Jewish worshippers at the holy site. But the ultra-Orthodox are now demanding separate entrances.

Another clause in the agreement widely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties would grant the Reform and Conservative movements representation on the board of governors that will administer the mixed prayer area. They also object to funding the new egalitarian space through the official state budget, preferring that the money come from non-governmental or quasi-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency.

“These are not trivial matters,” said Sharansky. “They are extremely important points, and the prime minister understands that.”

Sharansky, who created the blueprint for the plan three years ago, warned of dire consequences if Netanyahu reneged on his commitment.

“If this agreement will not be succeed, then as always, the Knesset and the Supreme Court will become the next battlefield,” he said. “I know from 20 years of experience in government that when that happens, one side wins but we all together lose. “

American Jewish leaders warned Netanyahu at their meeting on Wednesday of a major crisis in relations with world Jewry if the controversy over the new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was not resolved over the next few weeks.