Real Battle Over Western Wall Is Just Beginning in Israel

Orthodox Resistance and Women's Push Could Still Derail Plan

Just Beginning: Natan Sharansky’s proposal to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall is a victory for pluralism. But the war is far from over.
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Just Beginning: Natan Sharansky’s proposal to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall is a victory for pluralism. But the war is far from over.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 11, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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American Jews and others pushing for religious pluralism at Judaism’s most accessible sacred space may have won a major advance for their cause with the new compromise proposal put forth by Natan Sharansky. But it is only now, in Israel, that the real debate begins.

The Western Wall, or the Kotel, as it is known in Hebrew, may be the country’s most visited religious site. But for most Israelis, the campaign for gender-egalitarian prayer there is Diaspora mishegas and not their fight. None of Israel’s mass-circulation daily newspapers carried the plans for the Western Wall on its front pages. Only the less widely circulating daily Haaretz ran it on page one.

The paradoxical fact is, while most Israeli Jews are not Orthodox, on most religious matters they defer to the Orthodox, including Orthodox insistence on gender separation in public prayer. Reform and Conservative Judaism, which predominate in America, simply aren’t on their radar.

This reality means that a committed push from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government will be crucial to implementing Sharansky’s vision of a greatly enlarged area of the Western Wall that would be devoted to egalitarian prayer in the predominant American style. Haredi factions will resist this strongly at every stage of the project’s planning and funding. Even though the first reaction of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the cleric in charge of the Western Wall, has been that he can “live with” the plan, Haredi rabbinic and political leaders can be expected to galvanize their community by pairing a campaign for the Wall with their campaign against ongoing plans for Haredi conscription.

And that is just the first hurdle.

Even if the plan makes headway against Haredi opposition, it may be reduced in scope during political wrangling. And if construction begins, Haredim can be expected to work hard to delay it, with legal challenges and possibly the trump card in Israeli building: a claim that there are unexplored archaeological remains that must be excavated first.


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