American Jewish leaders have told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Jewish diaspora’s relationship with Israel is at stake if it fails to implement a plan — already approved by the government, but blocked by the ultra-Orthodox — for an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall.
At a June 1 meeting, called in emergency but lasting less than an hour, the Reform and Conservative leaders left with only another promise. Netanyahu said that he is committed to the plan, and needs another 21 days for its implementation. That’s on top of the 60-day extension which expired the last week of May, according to those in the meeting, some of whom had traveled to Israel just to plead the case.
“We are committed to the principles of the agreement, one wall for one people,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “Our expectation is that the government honors its commitment.”
The fate of the egalitarian plaza plan reflects particular tensions between diaspora and Israeli Judaism. Though the ultra-Orthodox make up about 10% of the Israeli public, they dominate state policy on issues of religion in the public sphere. Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements are small, if passionate, with considerably less influence, because most non-Orthodox Israelis vote on issues of security and economy, instead of religion and state, said Yedidia Stern, a religion and state expert at the Israeli Democracy Institute. But while Western Wall access could be seen as a niche issue for non-Orthodox Israelis, it is a central concern to Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States.
“We are very willing to stand up for Israel and we want to be able to know that the Israel that we love unconditionally loves us,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Jacobs said that he expressed “frustration” and “deep concern” to the Prime Minister over his government’s failure to execute on the plan.
In January, the government recommended the creation of a pluralistic plaza just south of the traditional Western Wall in an area known as Robinson’s Arch. Hailed as a historic compromise, the proposal was meant to resolve a decades-long dispute over Orthodox control over the Jewish holy site.
That plaza was to function as a mixed-gender alternative to the traditional Western Wall, which essentially operates as an Orthodox synagogue where men and women pray separately, with restrictions on female worship. The government planned to invest about $9 million to create the plaza, which will be roughly half the size of the traditional site at 10,000 square feet. Women would be able to pray freely there.
Not long after the government announced the plan, the ultra-Orthodox public erupted in protest and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign paperwork to implement the plan. Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, also walked back his support. Netanyahu appointed his then chief of staff David Sharan — who has since been promoted to cabinet secretary — to resolve the crisis in 60 days. That deadline passed in late May, leading to the current stalemate and the three week extension.
“If American Jewry or anyone else outside of Israel thinks that Israeli politics can solve it by itself the answer is that it will never happen,” said Stern. “The only way to achieve any change is pressure from the outside.”
Over the 60-day period, Sharan held two meetings with the non-Orthodox Israeli stakeholders. According to Wernick, the American non-Orthodox counterparts were also in touch with the Netanyahu through his senior advisor Jonathan Schachter and through Natan Sharansky, the original architect of the plaza plan and the head of the Jewish Agency.
Crucially, the government had promised to create a single entrance to both the Orthodox and egalitarian sections, so that visitors could choose freely where to go. The council overseeing the site would include representatives recommended by the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall, the female prayer group that defies the Orthodox ban on some forms of female worship at the Western Wall.
The ultra-Orthodox have opposed these two items in the recommendations because of the legitimacy they confer to non-Orthodoxy in Israel. The shared entrance “gives the impression that the two places have an equal symbolic importance,” said Stern.
The issue of religious pluralism in Israel certainly “sparks intense emotional reactions” in American Jews, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an American-Israeli political analyst and public opinion expert. But she doubted that the failure of the Western Wall plaza would create a “permanent rift with the bulk of American Jews.”
“I think that for the vast majority of American Jews the feeling is a sort of amorphous cultural-historical-national-identity attachment and religion plays a part in that,” she said. “The number of non-Orthodox American Jews who place this issue at the center of their attachment to Israel is a smaller subset.” Rather than an “extreme break,” she predicts an “an escalation of rhetoric and bad feelings.”
Participants in the June 1 meeting declined to comment on whether they would agree to changes to the shared entrance with the Orthodox and the inclusion of Reform and Conservative leaders on the plaza’s governing committee. The Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America also attended the meeting.
Afterwards, members of Women of the Wall said they “share in the great disappointment of Jews around the world in the delayed implementation of the agreement.”
“It is a marathon, not a sprint,” added Wernick. “At the same time, a marathon needs to have an end. You can’t run forever.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.