Focus on Issues: Western Wall Compromise is First Pluralism Test of Barak Government

Relations among the streams of Judaism may not be high on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s priority list, but some government officials are already taking steps toward addressing issues that have strained Israel-Diaspora relations in recent years.

Yitzhak Herzog, Israel’s new Cabinet secretary, will ask the government to establish a new committee to address issues related to religious pluralism, including conversion.

The government also took a step toward allowing egalitarian services at the Western Wall. For the first time, the government officially recognized the right of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to pray at a section of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch that is near but separate from the main prayer plaza. Details were expected to be ironed out in a meeting this week among Herzog, Conservative leaders and representatives from the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Reform and Conservative leaders, who were pessimistic that any progress would be made on pluralism after the fervently Orthodox Shas Party was included in the government, are now more upbeat.

“We are encouraged by the serious and warm attitude of senior government officials,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Masorti, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel.

But the optimism may be premature. Some government officials are already backtracking from their apparent change of position regarding services at the Western Wall.

The new momentum started on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day marking the destruction of the Temple, which according to tradition had happened because of Jewish infighting.

In recent years, small egalitarian services on Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall, held far from the main prayer plaza, had sparked violent protests by fervently Orthodox Jews.

Although there were no problems reported during the holiday this year, there were clashes between secular and fervently Orthodox Jews on the preceding Shabbat. Two days before the annual fast, the possibility of violence worried Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s new public security minister.

Ben-Ami called Conservative and Reform leaders and asked them to hold their services at the Robinson’s Arch area. The area, where extensive archaeological digs have been carried out, is only about 100 feet away from the main prayer plaza, but Orthodox Jewish worshipers cannot see it.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s religious action center, agreed immediately.

“It has been my view for quite some time now that Robinson’s Arch is an acceptable compromise to allow our people to hold services at the wall and avoid confrontation,” he said, adding that he considered it to be a “sign of goodwill” from the new government.

“But let’s not forget that this is not the most acute example of violations of personal liberties and freedoms in Israel,” Regev said.

In contrast, the Conservative movement rejected the solution, saying that it would not forgo a fundamental right to pray at the main plaza.

“The issue is not whether the stones are sacred,” Bandel said. “It is the fact that generations of Jews stood at that place and wept tears of prayer.”

Conservative leaders also pressed Ben-Ami because the government’s offer was not initially a concession — they were able to pray at Robinson’s Arch before even without government permission.

Herzog then made two offers. First, he promised that the government would provide for the needs of egalitarian worshipers at Robinson’s Arch. Second, Herzog said the government would seriously consider setting up an interministerial committee to resolve a host of outstanding issues.

The first offer was backed up with a letter from Oded Weiner, a Religious Affairs Ministry official responsible for holy sites. In the past, Weiner – - who is Orthodox — objected to allowing the groups to pray at the arch. Now, his letter contained a promise to provide “requisite assistance” to the liberal groups if they chose to pray there.

That, said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, amounted to an “unprecedented promise” under which, according to his interpretation, the government would provide for the needs of the egalitarian groups — Torah scrolls, prayer podiums, tables and chairs.

The Conservative movement responded with a “one-time gesture” and asked its members not to come to the Kotel at all on Tisha B’Av.

Weiner, however, refused to say exactly what his somewhat vague letter meant, insisting that issues would be discussed in the meeting this week with Herzog and Conservative leaders.

Shimon Malka, spokesman for the Shas-controlled Religious Affairs Ministry, denied that the Orthodox officials have changed their position, and rejected the suggestion that Shas or the ministry had softened its line toward Reform or Conservative Jews.

“We have no problem with them praying at Robinson’s Arch,” he said. “But this was a one-time offer — for Tisha B’Av — and all we offered to provide was chairs.”

Malka also accused the Conservative movement of exploiting services at the Kotel for protest.

“When there are no television cameras or action they don’t come to pray,” he said. “This is why they didn’t show up in the end.”

Bandel, however, said Herzog guaranteed that the offer would not expire after Tisha B’Av, and that the ministry would provide the same services it gives worshipers at the main plaza.

Herzog’s second offer — to launch a broader discussion of pluralism issues through a new committee — was of even greater significance. Reform and Conservative leaders believe that Herzog is positioning himself to take a leading role in the new government on pluralism issues, and he has several qualifications for the job.

Herzog’s grandfather was Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, and the Cabinet secretary himself is well acquainted with Conservative and Reform Judaism. He also once served on a public committee that examined the structure and functioning of religious councils.

“We saw this as a kind of hour of goodwill for all parts of Israeli society and the Diaspora to try and find amicable solutions to problems that loom over our ability to live together,” Herzog said. “We wanted to set an example here, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, which marked perhaps the greatest disaster that ever happened to the Jewish people.”

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