New Western Wall Prayer Space Signals Shift Among ultra-Orthodox Politicians

When you’re spoiled, and pampered with budgets and gifts by the prime minister, you won’t be quick to foment coalition crises.

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Tourists take pictures of the right part of the Western Wall, on the archaeological site known as Robinson's Arch, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 2, 2016.
Tourists take pictures of the right part of the Western Wall, on the archaeological site known as Robinson's Arch, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 2, 2016.Credit: AFP

Pornography, the cliché goes, is a matter of geography. Politics, too, it turns out. There’s no overstating the historic and dramatic importance of the government’s decision to establish a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall. The decision recognizes the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism for the first time, and affords them a place to worship at the holy site. One government after another played around with this issue for 20 years, and it was none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government – hats off! – that finally did something.

Forty years ago, a government here fell because a few ministers didn’t make it home before the start of the Sabbath after attending a reception ceremony for the arrival of the first F-15 warplanes in Israel. If we compare that trivial event, in December 1976 (when the National Religious Party ministers abstained in a no-confidence vote, during the first Rabin government), to what happened this week and passed in silence in the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist arenas – it’s like comparing a Purim firecracker with an atom bomb.

Clearly something has changed. The sea may be the same sea, but the Haredim are no longer the same Haredim. The Haredi public is more or less up in arms over the issue, as reflected in their media outlets. One magazine ran a headline, “Idol in the Temple,” but the two senior MKs from United Torah Judaism, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, mumbled something for the record and moved on. Shas leader Arye Dery used this week’s act of outrage (stalking out of the Knesset chamber) not in response to the plan for the Western Wall but as a reaction to another spectacle for which Netanyahu grabbed credit – this time for the lowering of public-transportation fares. The move was initiated by Dery and appropriated, as usual, by Netanyahu. That was the end of the Western Wall affair for the politicians.

The moral is that when you’re spoiled, and pampered with budgets and gifts by the prime minister, you won’t be quick to foment coalition crises that can lurch out of control and cut off the largesse instantly. And if you have to put up with an idol along the way, so be it.

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