Prayers for pluralism at Kotel crushed

Jewish women pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

They’ve tried strongly-worded statements. They’ve tried private meetings with the prime minister. They’ve tried negotiations, protest and prayer.

But for the past five years, despite broad internal consensus and consistent pressure, the American Jewish establishment has been unable to persuade Israel’s government to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

The latest setback in that fight came Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiation between the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the Western Wall’s haredi Orthodox management.

Work to expand the egalitarian section will continue during the suspension.  But a new agreement will now be negotiated by Israel’s cabinet, and will need to come to a new vote before moving forward.

The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s haredi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but have since railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism, and at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”

“At the time, we all felt that this proposal that was being offered was very historic,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. “And there was a very positive feeling about this happening.”

Three years ago, Weinblatt chaired the Rabbinic Cabinet for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and conducted meetings between Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, one of the main architects of the agreement, and American religious leaders.

Weinblatt, a Conservative rabbi, said there were skeptics at the time who didn’t think the agreement would be implemented, but he was never one of them — until now.

“So, what happened the other day [with the suspension] is very disappointing,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that it’s not over until it’s over, but I do not know that I see how it can be maneuvered when [the haredi Orthodox] have taken such a strong stance against it.”

Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Kol Shalom in Rockville was less diplomatic. Netanyahu has made a deal with the devil for politics, he said.

“I was appalled, angry, disgusted, fed up and believe this is a slap in the face to all non-Orthodox Jews, whether outside Israel or inside,” he said. It is frustrating to be delegitimized as Jews by the haredi Orthodox, especially when American Jews are some of Israel’s strongest supporters, he added.

Maltzman, a Conservative rabbi, said he has heard from angry congregants about the suspension. One wanted to speak about it at Shabbat services. Another suggested that the congregation cancel its annual High Holiday appeal for Israel Bonds in protest.

Other national Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement are also saying they feel betrayed by Netanyahu.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” said Jerry Silverman, CEO of JFNA, said. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

Various advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the collapse of the deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, Jacobs expressed strong disappointment in the suspension, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. He included it in a list of recent Israeli government decisions the Reform movement opposes, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he said. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the state of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013 seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.

Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld feels the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands.

“The Israeli Supreme court seems to be the only governmental venue that appreciates the long-term impact of Israel advocating its role as the home for all Jews,” she said. “Inevitably, we will find our way back to the courts. We will continue to protest.”

A range of other groups have also criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Women of the Wall prayer group, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” the Jewish Agency’s Sharansky said in a statement. “Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

Non-Orthodox leaders also decried the Israeli government’s advancing a bill to centralize authority for Jewish conversions under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a haredi Orthodox body. Silverman compared the bill to a 2010 bill on conversions in Israel, which American Jewish groups also opposed because they argued it would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.

“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”

Ben Sales writes for JTA News and Features. Hannah Monicken is WJW senior writer.

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