The Western Wall is a powerful symbol for Jews of all stripes. Unfortunately, recent developments at the Wall threaten to transform the holy site into a place where many Jews will feel increasingly unwelcome.
The area immediately adjacent to the Western Wall has long been, for all intents and purposes, an Orthodox synagogue. A permanent mechitza, or prayer barrier, dividing the men’s and women’s prayer areas was erected in 1967 after Israel retook the Old City. People who choose to pray in this area must do so in the Orthodox fashion.
But behind the prayer area there is a large plaza that is used by many different groups. Non-Orthodox groups, even non-Jewish groups, have prayed there. Army units have their induction ceremonies on the plaza. The mixed-gender army choir has performed there. On Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, the plaza area is always crowded with Israelis — secular and religious, men and women, together.
Now, however, the status quo is in danger. The Western Wall plaza is shrinking. It is much smaller than it was just a few months ago. The Orthodox rabbi put in charge of the Wall area by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Shmuel Rabinovitch, has decided that more space is needed for prayer — in fact, much more. The plaza is being torn up by bulldozers so that the men’s and women’s prayer section can be expanded by some 6,400 square feet — not an inconsequential tract of sacred real estate. The expansion would nearly double the size of the prayer area.
Construction began in November and is expected to wrap up sometime this month. The decision to expand the prayer area appears to have been made without any public consultation. The end result will be that non-Orthodox groups that want to pray in or otherwise utilize the plaza will be confined to a smaller space that is farther removed from the Wall.
Rabbi Rabinovitch has defended the expansion by arguing that there was not enough space at the Wall for those who wished to pray. But this is a specious argument. In reality there are far fewer tourists visiting the Wall these days. There are also fewer Israelis who are willing to come to the Old City owing to security concerns.
Rather, the expansion seems to be part of an ongoing campaign to turn the entire Wall area into a place where a rigid form of Orthodoxy holds sway. We can see this in the gradual growth in the height of the mechitza dividing the men’s and women’s prayer sections, consistent with the rightward drift in the Orthodox world. And we can see this in the occasional harassment of — and even assaults upon — non-Orthodox groups that seek to worship in the plaza area.
Indeed, there have been at least two other efforts to extend the mechitza in the previous two years. The extensions were removed only as a result of appeals made to the Ministry of Religious Affairs by the attorney for the Masorti movement, Israel’s equivalent of Conservative Judaism.
While many members of the Masorti movement now pray at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Wall, just south of the plaza, we have never relinquished our right to pray, in keeping with our customs, men and women together, in the plaza area. That is why we are weighing the possibility of petitioning Israel’s Supreme Court if necessary to restore the status quo.
We support the right of all Jews to pray freely in keeping with their own long-established customs. We have made clear that we have no objection to temporary extensions to the mechitza to be erected for those occasions when the numbers of Orthodox worshippers swell.
The Western Wall, however, rightfully belongs to the entire Jewish people. Unilateral actions by those who view the area as their own private domain must not be allowed to stand. If we permit actions such as these, we will quickly find ourselves on a slippery slope toward losing our rights at Judaism’s most holy site.
Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks is the director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, the rabbinical arm of the Masorti movement.