Netanyahu Mustn't Give in to ultra-Orthodox Pressure, Honor Western Wall Compromise

The message Netanyahu’s government is sending to Jewish world is that it’s doubtful PM is capable of translating his grandiose statements – that he wants every Jew, from every movement, to feel at home in Israel – into actions.

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

A proposal by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, which would grant the non-Orthodox movements a space for prayer at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Western Wall, is the only solution on the table in the controversy over the Wall’s character which began in 1988, when Women of the Wall started demanding their legitimate rights there.

In an ideal world, the Western Wall would be an inclusive, pluralistic place where every Jewish man and woman could pray in his or her own fashion. But those hopes were shelved long ago, when the Wall turned into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue under the auspices of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Thus the arrangement approved by the cabinet, which would grant a separate prayer space at the Wall to the non-Orthodox movements, is essentially an attempt to create a “separation of powers” that would keep the peace while also upholding the right of every Jewish movement to pray in its own fashion.

But even this separation hasn’t satisfied the ultra-Orthodox stream, which recklessly ignores the fact that Judaism – in Israel and worldwide – is not its private property. The Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are trying to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to alter the agreement that was reached, with the goal of abolishing the official status it grants the Reform and Conservative movements.

Netanyahu’s conduct in this matter, as in other matters, raises doubts about his ability to stand fast against these assaults. The signs of impending capitulation are growing.

The 30 days within which Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay (Shas) was supposed to sign regulations to advance the agreement over the Western Wall have passed. Last week, Azoulay said he viewed signing them as a sin so grave that a person should let himself be killed rather than commit it. He also continued hurling verbal abuse at the Reform movement.

Moreover, five weeks after the agreement was approved by the cabinet, Netanyahu surprisingly gave the Chief Rabbinate “two to three weeks” to submit its own proposal, even though the rabbinate has already announced that it opposes “giving any foothold at this holy site” to the Reform and Conservative movements, which it denounced in harsh terms. And last week, the state asked the High Court of Justice for a 90-day extension on the deadline for submitting its report on how the Mendelblit plan is progressing.

The message Netanyahu’s government is sending to the Jewish world is that it’s doubtful the prime minister is capable of translating his grandiose statements – that he wants every Jew, from every movement, to feel at home in Israel – into actions. Israel is thereby deepening its disconnect with Diaspora Jewry, and above all with American Jewry, and sinking further into conservative Orthodox separatism.

Therefore, Netanyahu must not give in. He must honor the cabinet’s decision, which provides justice to those who want to be Jews in their own way.