The Man Who Made Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall Possible

Avichai Mendelblit was an inspirational figure in the long-running saga to find a solution to the dispute about prayer and access at the Western Wall.

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Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman.
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman.Credit: Michal Fattal

Last week, the cabinet decided to adopt the recommendations of the report called “Report by the Advisory Team on Prayer Arrangements at the Western Wall.” The dry title fails to reflect the revolution contained within the report’s pages: that Israel recognizes there is more than one way to be a Jewish man or woman, even at this holiest of sites.

A new plaza is to be built adjacent to the currently recognized site, and ceremonial activity is to be conducted there in the spirit of egalitarian gender values and pluralism. There will no longer be restrictions and coercion; no more modesty patrols and no ultra-Orthodox monopoly at the Western Wall.

The approved framework was designed to bring an end to the conflict between Women of the Wall, its supporters and non-Orthodox worshippers on the one hand, and the Western Wall rabbi and Western Wall Heritage Foundation on the other. The plan strives to respect all parties: “It has both attentiveness and hope that the Western Wall will cease to be an area of discord and that its unifying character will be restored in a manner that befits its unique status among the entire Jewish people as a national and religious site for yearning and prayer,” as the introduction states.

The surprising source of this respectful approach that characterized the entire process is worth bearing in mind: The source and inspiration were the work of then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who has just assumed office as Israel’s attorney general.

For nigh-on three years, Mendelblit conducted secret negotiations between the relevant parties on the issue of prayer at the Kotel. He applied legal tools to achieve the lofty goal of making peace and preventing violence and the desecration of Torah scrolls during confrontations at the site.

The parties didn’t meet directly to negotiate. Each side met separately with Mendelblit and his team at the Prime Minister’s Office. There was a sense of mission prevailing at the meetings; a spirit of trust and mutual attentiveness and respect were present. Mendelblit, an Orthodox Jew, was able to demonstrate to us that the attentiveness that is the basis of the commandment “Hear O Israel” would also be the basis for trust between us, and the belief in a process that would bring about a better world.

Together with my partners to the talks, I spent hundreds of hours with Mendelblit. We carefully observed him from up close. We compared various versions of statements he had made. We challenged him intellectually and emotionally, and each time we found that, in defiance of the laws of gravity, he was able to rise above our suspicions and take all of us with him to a place where people solve problems rather than creating them.

His doctoral thesis is devoted to “Legal Combat and the State of Israel,” and his expertise is in the application of legal tools to achieve diplomatic and economic objectives in the context of conflict.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Spoke a new type of Hebrew language during talks.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Before applying his legal tools, however, Mendelblit brought rare human skills to the negotiations. The breakthrough that occurred related not only to the final agreement but also to the way he steered the negotiations.

On the way to the agreement, Mendelblit managed to shatter several of my own perceptions, ones that had served me well in the past. He is an Orthodox man who does not flinch from contact with subjects and people that might undermine his own worldview; a general who is not afflicted with inflated self-confidence but knows how to listen and be accommodating – a peace-loving and peace-seeking lawyer who gives his profession a good name.

Mendelblit is imbued with a deep sense of mission. From the start, it was clear he was committed to a single goal: that this would be a victory for all Jewish people. He spared no efforts to find a balance between the rights of all parties, including recognition of every person’s right to “respect, equality and freedom of worship.”

At one particular meeting, the fact I had been an Israeli swimming champion in my youth came up. To everyone’s surprise, Mendelblit confessed that he, too, had wanted to be a champion. His dream had been to be a professional soccer player. Israel may have lost a soccer player, but it gained a player who respects the rules of the game, acts fairly, takes care to pass the ball to others and provides the necessary leadership to all the players, fans and spectators at home so that together they can score the goal of tolerance.

In my view, if Eliezer Ben Yehuda is the father of the revival of the Hebrew language, Mendelblit is the Ben Yehuda of a new language of negotiations that will enable Israeli society to deal with the most painful problems. I have never heard that language in the Knesset or the media. It’s a language similar to Israeli Hebrew, but is infused with the spirit of Ima Shalom, the talmudic role model, and of Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa from darkness to light.

If we learn to speak this language, we can find solutions to other disputes relating to religion and state that have been shaking Israeli society.

The writer is chairwoman of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center.

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