Fall 2016

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Will We Ever Have One Kotel for One People?

More than six months ago, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted to approve the agreement hammered out by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, formerly the Cabinet Secretary, regarding the Western Wall and the proposed creation of a new upgraded area for egalitarian minyanim and women-only prayer services with Torah reading.

Now, however, as the new Jewish year is about to begin, the implementation of that agreement, which had been conceived originally by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky back in 2013 to solve the dispute regarding the monthly Women of the Wall services at the traditional Kotel, seems further away than ever, with tensions between the two sides and within the Netanyahu government growing sharper every day.

On the one side, the supporters of the agreement — the Conservative and Reform Movements who represent the overwhelming majority of North American Jewry, together with the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federation of North America — have accused the government of dragging its feet in putting the proposal into effect. Rather than force the Ultra-Orthodox Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay to sign off on the agreement immediately after its adoption or be replaced, the prime minister agreed to a 60-day extension and appointed his new Cabinet Secretary to see how to answer and assuage the objections raised by the Ultra-Orthodox leadership to the proposal whose motto is “one Kotel for one people.”

Curiously, what seems to have become the core of the conflict for the traditionalists is not only the idea of an egalitarian prayer area per se but also the planned single entrance to both the traditional Orthodox section and the new egalitarian area and the creation of a new governing body, comprised formally of representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements, to oversee the new section.

Rather than using this extension as a cooling-off period, the same Ultra-Orthodox politicians, who had not voiced active opposition during the original Cabinet debate, have been acting to heat up the scene. For example, they have taken to denouncing the proposal as a disgrace and defamation and vilifying the proponents as comparable to Haman and other villains of the Jewish People.

And at the same time, they have sought to extend their control to the area of the Kotel around Robinson’s Arch, south of the Mughrabi Bridge, which is the intended site of the egalitarian prayer area. While never before had there been Orthodox prayer in this area, at the beginning of the summer, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, arrived at Robinson’s Arch with police protection and conducted an Orthodox minyan there, complete with a temporary mechitza to separate between men and women.

In response, the Conservative and Reform Movements have now begun to hold egalitarian prayer services in the public area on the upper plaza opposite the traditional Kotel, an area which heretofore had been tacitly under the supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall. These services have been widely advertised as a way to make it clear to the government that both sides can play the same game of creating facts on the ground.

As Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a past President of the Rabbinical Assembly and former head of the Masorti Bet Din, wrote: “Of course what is really at stake and what is really the cause of all the fuss is simply a struggle for power and control. It is the attempt of the official rabbinate to control religious life in Israel and to declare illegitimate all other groups that claim to represent Judaism as well. The answer to ‘Whose Wall is it?’ must be . . . this Wall belongs to you and me.



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