Kotel prayer decision and shifting Israel-Diaspora paradigm

  • Kotel
The Israeli government’s passage of legislation that authorises egalitarian prayer in a soon-to-be-created section adjacent to the southern part of the Western Wall has been called groundbreaking, empowering, dramatic, and unprecedented. The section could be ready in as soon as a few months from now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution”. Last Sunday his Cabinet approved the measure with a 15 - 5 majority vote.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the decision would “connect world Jewry to the State of Israel”.

Calling it a “Progressive victory at the Kotel”, the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis and the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity said that they “celebrate the significant resolution by the Israeli government…”

“That historic resolution is a result of three decades of struggle by the Progressive and Conservative movements, representing a majority of the world’s Jews, led by the courageous Woman of the Wall movement, whose leaders defied arrest and harassment over many years. We are proud to stand in comradeship with them.” 

This last victory, they say, “is just one sign of the increasing power our movements are gaining, as people move away from discriminative religious practices, choosing better and more enlightened forms of our ancient faith.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said it was a “major step forward”. Member of Knesset Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) said the Kotel was “liberated” again, this time not by soldiers, but by women in Jewish prayer shawls.

Indeed, for 27 years, the Women of the Wall group pushed for women’s equality at the Kotel. More formal negotiations have been going on for almost three years. In a statement, the group said more than just an agreement has been achieved.

“The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Instead of splitting up the existing pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger.”


This is a paradigm shift.


Beyond the blueprints, the ratified plan is a powerful statement about the overt impact Diaspora Jewry and global Jewish leaders could have on Israeli decision-making.


US Jews have traditionally served as a political lifeline for Israel, lobbying American governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Recent occurrences have shifted the relationship between the American and Israeli Jewish communities into one of semi-equality, which includes American Jewish leaders objectively discussing Israel’s policies rather than blindly supporting them.

Silverman called this shift evolutionary. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said the negotiations “prove the role that North American Jewry… can and should play in helping Israel make our country more inclusive”.

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky said that American and Israeli Jews are becoming increasingly interdependent. The US needs Israel to help strengthen Jewish identity in a Diaspora community that is slowly shrinking from assimilation and intermarriage. Israel, attacked daily by the international community, needs the solidarity of Jewish communities abroad, he explained.

“I am sure that the [Israeli] government must now take into account - should take into consideration - the position of world Jewry on the decisions it makes,” Hagay Elizur, senior director of Diaspora Affairs for Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy & Diaspora Affairs, told JNS.org.

Netanyahu might be feeling the pressure of unprecedented US-Israel political tension. Last August’s Peace Index poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University showed that 48 per cent of Israeli Jews worried that Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran nuclear deal would damage US-Israel relations.

Last November, speaking at JFNA’s General Assembly, Netanyahu called on American Jewish leaders to “work together to unite the Jewish people”. At that time, he underscored his new commitment to guarantee equal rights to members of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

The prime minister noted his work with the committee for a compromise on the Kotel as an example of his efforts.

Now, pluralistic Jewish leaders are touting the work they did as a model for future initiatives. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice-president of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the negotiating process was almost as significant as its outcome in that it showed that even Jewish leaders with varying opinions could “hang in there” and handle “complex negotiations” when they have a shared interest.

The next big issue for the pluralistic Jewish movements is marriage equality, or the ability to perform civil marriages and marriages outside of the Chief Rabbinate, which adheres to Orthodox traditions.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praised the passage of the agreement, calling it "historic".



Opposition to the decision


Some Orthodox leaders, however, are not going to let these changes happen easily. In an interview with JNS.org, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch called the government’s Kotel plan a desecration of G-d’s name. He said he did not consider himself a partner in the Kotel negotiations.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do to stop it now, I am deeply saddened… I hope that we can get the whole thing cancelled,” he said.

Rabinovitch did say, however, that the ratified Kotel plan was a better option than bad alternatives that were discussed.

Member of Knesset Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) called members of the Reform movement “a group of clowns stabbing the holy Torah”. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said the Reform movement represents assimilation.

“Their rabbi married [Bill and Hillary] Clinton’s daughter [Chelsea] with a priest,” Levin said.

Ironically enough the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheik Muhammad Hussien, has also condemned the agreement, according to JTA.

He says the area next to the Western Wall is “the property of the Islamic Waqf that was taken by the Israeli occupation in 1967”.

He called the decision “a brutal attack on the Waqf and additional evidence of the Israeli aggression against Muslim holy places, in an attempt to Judaise Jerusalem”.

The approval of an egalitarian section of the Western Wall "profanes" the holy site, the haredi Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America said in a statement released on Monday, according to JTA.



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