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On January 31, 2016, the Israeli Cabinet reached an historic agreement on Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer sections at the Western Wall. While affirming the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) authority over the existing Orthodox prayer spaces for men and women, the agreement would expand and grant legitimacy to a pluralistic, egalitarian prayer space just to the south of the of existing plaza, along a stretch of the Western Wall. The plan was approved by a vote of 15-5.
This is a dramatic, milestone moment for recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism by the State of Israel.
This agreement is the result of years of painstaking work. In October 2012, Anat Hoffman - chairwoman of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center - was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) during the Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service. After the subsequent backlash, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Israeli Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit led negotiations to find a compromise for Orthodox and non-Orthodox worship at the Wall.
In October 2015, the World Zionist Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution sponsored by ARZENU, which called upon the Israeli government to “commit to creating a third section in the Western Wall site that will equal in size, funding and visibility and that will offer a dignified space of worship for the Conservative and Reform streams and to Women of the Wall, and be a symbol of Jewish Pluralism in Israel.”
Currently, a modest prayer platform exists for non-Orthodox prayer and gathering in the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall, just south of the Orthodox prayer space and plaza and adjacent to the archaeological park. The plan calls for NIS 35 million to be allocated to create an “official and respected” egalitarian prayer space.
It will be 9,700 square feet and will run along a 31-foot section of the Western Wall, and will accommodate approximately 1,200 people. The deal will also create a wide and visible entryway to the egalitarian section. Under the agreement, the government will allot funds for staff, Torah scrolls, and other ritual items. The new egalitarian prayer space will be administered by representatives from the Reform movement, the Masorti (Conservative) movement, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli government.
The agreement is indeed a compromise on the part of all parties. Haredi leaders (officially, the “Western Wall Heritage Foundation” and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz) will continue to control the Orthodox sections of the wall and its adjacent plaza. This will effectively exclude non-Orthodox group worship practices from the Orthodox sections of the Wall.
The leadership of the Reform Movement enthusiastically embraced the compromise. Anat Hoffman said, “This is a groundbreaking agreement…We will be able to stand as part of living history, read the Torah, and pray in the spirit of pluralism and equality that we believe is critical to a vibrant Judaism.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “This effort is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.”
And Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, said:
“This struggle and this potential victory is just the beginning of our efforts to ensure that the Jewish state of Israel is indeed a state where all forms of Judaism are practiced freely and without state prohibition.”
“We call on the prime minister to make clear to his ultra-Orthodox partners that the unity of the Jewish people and the connection between the state of Israel and world Jewry cannot be held captive to street battles within the ultra-Orthodox community and to take a clear and public stand against the continued incitement of ultra-Orthodox politicians against millions of Reform Jews.”
The compromise will bridge a festering schism between Israel and American Jewry, who have voiced concern about the government’s failure to recognize their authenticity and their needs. The hope is that the Western Wall will be an enduring symbol of Jewish unity, not fractious division.
Of course, there are dissenters from the agreement.
The “Original Women of the Wall” and other Orthodox feminists - who wish to pray together in non-mixed groups - apparently will be excluded from the women’s section of the Wall in their bid to read from the Torah, wear tallitot, and other rituals that are rejected by the Haredi establishment.
Some progressive and civil liberties-minded voices claim that the compromise is a surrender to Orthodox hegemony on religion-state matters, and that it is in fact a case of “separate but equal" - an archaic notion when it comes to civil rights.
Haredi leaders and politicians have condemned the agreement on the grounds that it grants legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism in any way, shape, or form.
And the Palestinian Waqf - the body that administers the Islamic holy sites on the Temple mount - has also criticized the agreement.
In recent weeks, Haredi leaders have lambasted the agreement and the government, including publishing incendiary posters around Jerusalem; several government officials have slandered the Reform Movement with caustic rhetoric. On March 27, 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu was warning that “difficulties have arisen” in the progress of the plan, and that he hoped that resolutions - and possible modifications of the original agreement - would be reached within 60 days.
Because of the importance the Western Wall holds for the Jewish people, the Western Wall has become a symbol of Judaism and perhaps even Jewish autonomy.
Yet, due to the current political makeup of Israel’s Knesset, and the stranglehold of the Chief Rabbinate over religious practice, the struggle for the egalitarian section has become a symbol for religious freedom in Israel.
If we want Israel to be welcoming to all Jews and to be strengthened as a Jewish and democratic state, there must be freedom of religion.
At the moment, the Western Wall functions as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, where women and men are separate, and not all Jews are free to worship as they choose. That is why, in January, the Reform and Conservative movements celebrated the historic change of officially adding an egalitarian section to the Western Wall.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken a step back from his promise to implement this historic agreement. He has asked for a 60-day period (roughly until the end of May), during which he has assigned David Shiran, his Bureau Chief, to research and evaluate potential “comprises.”
We are greatly disappointed by this latest setback in what has been a long and hard fought battle. Starting in 1988, when 100 women gathered together to pray and sing, forming the group Women of the Wall, the cause of creating “one wall for one people” has been gaining ground. Each Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Jewish month, these women with their allies from Israel and abroad, prayed at the Wall, sometimes enduring abuse, violence and even arrest.
The plan approved by the cabinet attempts to balance the rights of all of the parties- to respect, equality, freedom of religion and freedom of expression- while preserving the special historic, national and religious status of the Western Wall for all of the Jewish people.
This new section of the Western Wall will become a beacon of enduring religious freedom and progressive Judaism. The agreement makes the statement that there is room a place for all of our people. This new egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space gives us hope that if we can live our Jewish spiritual diversity in that holiest of places we can and will, one day soon, make the entire State of Israel a place of religious freedom, tolerance and respect.
In Israel, the Ultra-Orthodox parties control the majority of religious institutions. This includes the Rabbinate who governs laws on marriage, divorce, kosher laws, conversion, and mikvaot (ritual baths).
The struggle for an egalitarian section is about more than liberal aspirations. Instead, religious freedom and democracy are at stake. With a 15-5 vote to approve the agreement, and 86%* of Israeli Jews supporting religious freedom, the egalitarian section has become a symbol of the monopoly of the Haredi parties, and our need to free us from it.
We greatly appreciate PM Netanyahu and his government’s support for this deal and we want to encourage him in the strongest possible sense to keep his word and implement this decision.