TEL AVIV — The Conservative and Reform movements in Israel are considering some drastic measures as part of a planned offensive over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for egalitarian prayer if the government backs away from a long and drawn-out compromise to which it agreed.
With that plan now at risk due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox groups, leaders of the non-Orthodox movements say that, among other things, they will mobilize their bases — including in the large American Diaspora — to push for an egalitarian section in the main portion of the wall, which is under Orthodox control and currently strictly segregated by gender. The compromise plan worked out with the government would have instead given the non-Orthodox group a separate space of its own for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, a plaza located well south of the main wall.
“If there is no agreement, we are going back to square one and we will demand our share of the traditional plaza,” said Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.
On April 5, Knesset member Moshe Gafni of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, gestured toward a possible compromise. He told Haaretz that if the plan did not include a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza, he and his colleagues would give a section of the wall to the Reform and Conservative movements.
The Reform movement rejected the idea, saying the joint entrance was a non-negotiable condition of the plan.
Ytzhar Hess, head of Conservative Judaism’s movement in Israel, said that the Conservative and Reform movements might take their bid for an egalitarian section in the main portion of the wall to the Supreme Court but would focus on direct protest first. He said they will hold off on such protest until after the government’s 60-day deliberation period over the plan.
He predicted egalitarian prayer services on a “monthly or weekly basis and more to come” in order to “change the custom of the place by our feet.”
The plan now at risk was hailed as a historic breakthrough when it was approved by a government commission January 31. The Israeli government said it would invest 35 million shekels (about $10 million) to create a plaza open to worshippers of all genders. As it stands now, the Western Wall is divided into male and female sections, with restrictions on female religious expression. One key element of the agreement is that it effectively recognizes the Conservative and Reform movements through their inclusion in a steering committee to execute the plan.
Weeks after the Israeli government announced the plan, protest posters began appearing in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
“The Reform movement intends to sink its claws in the wall of Jerusalem,” one read, according to a photograph taken by the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal arm in Israel. “We must hurry and fight the Lord’s battle against this hemlock and wormwood movement that has brought the fall of many and taken a huge, deadly toll.”
Now there are hints that the protesters could have their way. Amid pressure from top Israeli rabbis, Minister of Religious Services David Azulay refused to sign the regulations to implement the plan. A key supporter of the plan, Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, withdrew his support. The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the crisis by convening a series of discussions with the major players in late March, with a plan to come up with a recommendation on how to proceed within 60 days.
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that “several difficulties have arisen” since the plan’s approval in January. “We are working to resolve them.”
If the hard-won compromise disintegrates, it could deal a major blow to the relationship between Israel and non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, who are deeply invested in the creation of the alternative prayer space.
“If it falls through, it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in an email to the Forward. “Reform Jewish leaders speak up every day on behalf of the State of Israel on the college campus and in our communities. We are asked to speak up for Israel, even as Israel treats Reform Judaism as inauthentic.”
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency chairman for Israel, helped to craft the plan for the Western Wall plaza. He said that non-Orthodox American Jewish leadership played a “very serious role in the negotiations,” and because of this “they deserve that this decision of the government will be implemented, and we have to do everything to implement it now.”
Sharansky said he was “confident in the intentions of the prime minister and in his determination.” But he added that whether the plaza is actually ratified “depends on many other factors.”
He would not go into detail about the current negotiations.
The recognition of Conservative and Reform Jewry by the government is what set off alarm bells among the Haredi leadership, said Yair Sheleg, a researcher on religion and state issues at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The ultra-Orthodox have, historically, had a strong debate with the Reform and Conservative [movements],” he said. “They don’t see them as a legitimate trend in Judaism but as some heretic sect, and they oppose them wherever they can. This is the real problem they are concentrated on.
“They were satisfied with the compromise. When the extreme part of the ultra-Orthodox recognized that the [agreement] gives the Reform recognition, they started to pressure the politicians.” (Israelis often use the English term “Reform” when speaking about all non-Orthodox denominations.)
Hess, of the Israeli Conservative movement, believes that the protests against the plan reflect fissures within Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, over the party’s leadership since the death of leader Ovadia Yosef in 2013. He said that the current Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, now the subject of a criminal investigation, is trying to outflank more conservative rabbis in order to maintain power. Jerusalem’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, has said that the egalitarian plan amounted to destroying the holy site altogether.
A Shas representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A request for comment from Gafni, tha Knesset Member with the Haredi party United Torah Judaism, was turned down.
Kariv said that a plan for an egalitarian plaza that does not include Reform and Conservative leadership is unacceptable: “We are not even willing to consider it. Who will run the egalitarian plaza? The ultra-Orthodox rabbis?”
The Reform and Conservative movements might be able to use a recent Supreme Court ruling in their favor as a bargaining chip in the ongoing discussion, should the Haredi parties block the Western Wall egalitarian plaza. In March, Israel’s attorney general warded off a Haredi challenge to a Supreme Court ruling stating that converts to Judaism should be able to immerse in the state-funded mikvehs, or ritual baths, even if Reform or Conservative rabbis conducted the conversion.
In the past, the Reform and Conservative leadership proposed state funding for ritual baths at their own synagogues in lieu of opening up the Orthodox synagogues to their converts. Now that the Supreme Court backs their right to send their converts to the state’s mikveh, they might push for their own, separate mikveh system anyway, in order to avoid confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox — even though they now have the right to use ultra-Orthodox mikvehs — in exchange for getting the green light on the Western Wall deal.
“We are not willing to compromise on the [mikvehs] after we received the Supreme Court ruling unless this is a package deal that enables the implementation of the Kotel [compromise],” Kariv said.
Meanwhile, Women of the Wall, the protest group that has been agitating for equal women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall for 27 years — and was a party to the plan — said it will continue its prayers there since the new plaza plan has yet to be implemented. It plans on hosting a prayer session in late April in which female descendants from the priestly Cohen tribe will take part in a blessing traditionally reserved for men. Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, anticipates that it will be met with protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews there.
“The powers that be don’t like such things,” she said. “These clashes will continue to happen, and because of these clashes these recommendations came to be,” she said of the Western Wall egalitarian plaza.
At the same time, Original Women of the Wall, another feminist group that rejects the proposal of the egalitarian space in favor of equal prayer rights for women in the traditional space, is happy about the delay.
“Anything that holds up this plan would be good,” said Cheryl Birkner Mack, an activist with the group.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.