Kotel Crisis Spawns New Debate Over Strategy


As Reform and Conservative Jews here step up their battle with the Israeli government over the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, a rift has developed about tactics going forward.

The split — abandon the Kotel fight and focus on other key issues or dig in and continue the push toward prayer for all at Judaism’s holiest site — came as Reform and Conservative leaders were in Jerusalem this week absorbing a body blow. The government, they were told by the minister appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a solution to the Kotel controversy, would not implement two of the three parts of the January 2016 agreement that would pave the way for an upgrading and revamping of an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall.

With the leaders feeling a sense of betrayal, the CEO of an Israeli group advocating for religious pluralism believes the issue is dead and that it is time to move on.

But leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements disagree.

“Although Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu genuinely wanted to see the agreement materialize, the ultra-Orthodox leadership threatened to bring down his government if he did not step back,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush — For Religious Freedom and Equality. “What Netanyahu is saying is that he is not going to allow himself to lose his government over the Kotel — it is not important enough.”

Rabbi Regev said he believes egalitarian groups must now reassess their strategy and focus on other issues involving religious equality and freedom in Israel such as the right to marry. Because the ultra-Orthodox permit marriages in Israel only between couples born to a Jewish mother or who had an Orthodox Jewish conversion, many Jewish children growing up in America, he said, “are not able to marry in Israel, and there are also Israeli citizens who cannot marry under Israeli laws.”

Instead, he said, “Let’s look at the larger picture and challenges facing us. The Kotel is just one element in this picture. We can’t get hung-up forever on the Kotel peg.”

But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, insisted, “We’re not going to move on, as in forget about the Kotel. … The Kotel is too important to move on. Implementation of the agreement would be in the best interests of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

He added: “We’re fighting for all issues that make Israel a homeland for all Jews –- all Jews, not just for some.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, echoed that sentiment, saying: “I don’t agree that we can just move on. It would be like taking the issue and pushing it aside. It needs to be resolved in a comprehensive way. What I continue to not understand is that he [Netanyahu] must have known [there would be an ultra-Orthodox backlash], so why would he have approved it?”

The three spoke by phone to The Jewish Week on Monday, just hours after they and other members of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency visited the Kotel with Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. While there, Hanegbi, who was appointed by Netanyahu to lead the government’s efforts to find a solution to the Kotel controversy, informed the group that his government would not implement two of the three parts of the January 2016 agreement.

The first called for a common entrance for all three prayer areas — the current men’s and women’s sections and a newly renovated egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel known as Robinson’s Arch. The second called for the creation of a special authority to administer the egalitarian prayer space that would include representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements.

The third part called for an expansion and renovation of the egalitarian prayer space at a cost of about $5 million, which Hanegbi said would be done.

Despite the government’s approval of the agreement in January, it was never implemented and the Israeli cabinet voted in June to suspend the plan for a common entrance because the ultra-Orthodox perceived it as giving recognition to non-Orthodox Jews.

During the Kotel visit, Hanegbi was quoting as telling the visitors: “I recognize and appreciate that suspending the Kotel arrangement created a perception among some that Israel no longer welcomes and appreciates all Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israel is a place for all Jews. That is true whether you wear a shtreimel, a knit kipa, a sheitel or nothing on your head at all.”

He also tried to downplay the importance of a single entrance, saying: “I don’t think that the Jewish people for 3,500 years prayed for an entrance. … We didn’t pray for an entrance — that’s not a big deal.”

Rabbi Wernick insisted, however, that the “agreement was not about the physical space and building it out, as Hanegbi claimed today. And it would not have changed the Western Wall one iota. … Let’s be honest. What is going on now is a tactic to divert attention. The Jewish world has changed in 25 years and is not prepared to move on. There needs to be a solution to this crisis, and the solution is the one we already agreed to.”

Both he and Rabbi Jacobs said they are looking to Israel’s High Court of Justice to resolve the issue. On Aug. 31, the court took note of the government’s decision to freeze the 2016 agreement and suggested it should reconsider the action.

“There was a deal, people worked on it and then the government comes and says it doesn’t exist?” said Supreme Court President Miriam Naor at the time. “This raises some questions.”

She added that an agreement that is “frozen” can be “thawed.”

The court directed the government to advise it by Sept. 14 if it would be willing to reconsider its decision to suspend the agreement or inform the court whether it believes the court has the authority to impose an agreement on the government. But instead of a response, the government requested more time.

The court is expected to rule by March because that is the date that Naor’s term on the bench expires.

Rabbi Wernick noted that the court has “consistently affirmed the right to pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.” He said it can “either force the government to implement the agreement or force the government to fulfill its previous court rulings and allow mixed prayer services at the Kotel plaza itself.”

In the meantime, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has been fighting alongside Reform and Conservative leaders, embarked on a major lobbying effort this week. The quasi-governmental group’s board members held meetings on Tuesday at the Knesset with dozens of Israeli lawmakers from both the ruling government and opposition parties. They plan to discuss the ramifications of the government’s suspension of the Western Wall agreement and its advancement of a bill to establish the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over conversions conducted in Israel.

The Jewish Agency remains committed to the principle “one wall for one people,” Natan Sharansky, the group’s chairman of the executive, said Monday as he accompanied Reform and Conservative leaders during a visit to the Western Wall.

Just who is to blame for the government’s decision not to implement the agreement is up for debate. Rabbi Regev noted that a month after the 2016 agreement, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis met in convention in Israel during which they heralded the agreement as a triumph for the Reform and Conservative movements.

“Clearly the message was understandably, ‘We won.’ And there was celebratory prayer at the [Western] Wall that was scheduled at the last minute. The message of the Reform movement was we won and the other side lost. And that enhanced the pressure on the other side. You can’t blame the leadership of the Reform movement to play the cards dealt to them. I believe if it had been implemented more quietly. … It all fell apart very quickly once there were shouts of victory and it was featured in international and Israeli headlines.”

Rabbi Regev noted that when Netanyahu was in the United States recently to address the United Nations General Assembly, “he briefed the Israeli media and said the Reform and Conservative movements tried to sneak a fast one by in trying to get recognition of their movements. Therefore, he said, they are the ones to blame. … Now it’s a PR battle. Who will be able to get their position seen as the right, moral and just position?”

Rabbi Jacobs said Netanyahu’s narrative “puts the blame on us, and the blame is not ours.”

He pointed out that a month before the rabbinical convention, Israel’s High Court had ruled that mikvot in Israel had to be opened to all, not just the Orthodox.

“I think that what happened when the charedi [ultra-Orthodox] then saw the change at the Kotel, they feared it would be one of many other victories and changes — and that galvanized their opposition,” he said.