Opinion

Netanyahu, Take Note: It's Time for Action, Not Words, at the Western Wall

The prime minister's request to continue waiting patiently only encourages the violence and hatred of Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment toward the majority of Diaspora Jews.

Non-Orthodox demonstrators are shoved in clashes at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016.
Emil Salman

An hour after Women of the Wall and Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders completed their prayers at the Western Wall, the prime minister denounced the event and its organizers. Bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall platform and holding an egalitarian prayer in the upper plaza are “unilateral breaches of the status quo at the Kotel” and “harm our attempts to reach a compromise” regarding the wall, he said in a statement.

Perhaps the speed with which the prime minister’s office issued the statement caused its drafters to skip the necessary explanation of what status quo had been breached by the worshippers. If the prime minister was referring to bringing Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza — then he is referring to a directive given by the Western Wall rabbi a few years ago, intended specifically to prevent the Women of the Wall from reading the Torah, despite the court ruling asserting their right to do so.

If the prime minister was referring to holding prayer services at the Kotel’s  public plaza, then this too is a new order issued by the Kotel chief rabbi only a few months ago, with the sole purpose of preventing Reform and Conservative communities  from praying together at the site. If he was talking about the actual joint prayer of women and men — then as a historian’s son, the prime minister knows full well that the barrier separating men from women at the Kotel was built only in 1968, following an opportunistic act  by the Ministry of Religious Affairs without due process in government.

What, then, is that status quo that has allegedly been breached by the leading rabbis of Reform and Conservative Judaism and by hundreds of congregation members from Israel and the Diaspora and Women of the Wall? Basic decency and integrity would require the Israeli leadership to say: It’s the status quo that grants the ultra-Orthodox establishment a violent, belligerent monopoly over Judaism in Israel. And it’s the peculiar status quo of speaking in two tongues to the Jewish world. One tongue says “you’re our brothers;” the other says: “you’re second–rate Jews.”

If that is the status quo the prime minister was talking about, then we’re proud and happy to breach it, and our only misgiving is why we did not do so until now. Alongside the rebuke for breaching the status quo, the prime minister stressed that in the present state of affairs we should be promoting communication, not friction.

Non-Orthodox demonstrators clash with a protester at the Western Wall, November 2, 2016.
Emil Salman

In this regard, the prime minister has no greater supporters than the leaders and leadership who carried the Torah scrolls into the Kotel plaza Wednesday morning. For four years, these leaders conducted exhausting negotiations on a compromise to the Kotel issue. The prime minister’s representatives went back and forth between the negotiating room and the room in which the Kotel rabbi and the ultra-Orthodox establishment representatives sat, since they of course refused to sit in the same room with the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism. They were the ones who insisted the negotiations be conducted as though these were indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, rather than discussions on how to ensure tolerant, dignified conduct at the Jewish people’s holiest site.

Despite the Kotel rabbi’s conduct, the negotiations ended with a historic resolution that the Israeli cabinet approved by a large majority. The was due to a large extent to the non-Orthodox movements’ leaders’ belief in the importance of communication and mutual consideration. The great patience these leaders displayed continued during the year in which the Israeli government failed to implement its decision. Time after time the movements agreed to the prime minister’s request to wait patiently. They continued to do this even when the cabinet approved the mikveh bill, which discriminates against Reform and Conservative converts at state-funded ritual baths, and even when ministers from the prime minister’s party joined the ugly incitement campaign against millions of Jews.

After a year of waiting and disappointment, it’s time to say that the prime minister’s request to continue demonstrating endless patience is the last thing that will help promote communication. In fact,  it serves as a tailwind to the violence and hatred displayed by the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel toward the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry.

The insistence of the worshippers at the Western Wall to realize their right to pray together and read from the Torah is tantamount to stoking dying embers before they are completely extinguished. This is the required step to prevent the ultra-Orthodox parties from burying the resolution through political belligerence.

Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves much praise for his efforts to advance the historic compromise agreement at the Western Wall. Without his personal involvement it is doubtful that the cabinet would have reached this resolution. But precisely because he won deep confidence and extensive credit from the Jewish leadership in the world, the threshold of expectations from him is especially high. Prime Minister Netanyahu rightfully earned the resounding applause from all over the Jewish world when the agreement was approved. But like any leader he too must know that the higher the praise, the greater the expectations and responsibility.

If the Kotel resolution falls through, history will not apportion the blame equally among all Jewish factions and movements. A large part of the blame will be placed on parties, rabbis and politicians whose Judaism is characterized by groundless hatred. The rest of the blame will go to the prime minister, who initiated the compromise but didn’t know how to impose limits on his coalition partners.

The prime minister talks a lot about leadership. He should be reminded that one of the tests of courageous leadership is to know when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to act. For four years we talked about the Kotell — now it’s the prime minister’s turn to do what is required and translate the words into action. If he does that, a status quo of religious tolerance and pluralism will gradually evolve in Israel —  the type of status quo that would be truly wrong to breach.