Non-Orthodox Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have been fighting over the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, for 28 years. The ultra-Orthodox want to maintain the status quo at the wall, where men’s and women’s section are separated by a partition. Liberal Jews want a place for men and women to pray together.
Now another group has entered the fray.
Orthodox settlers focused on gaining Jewish control of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories have joined forces with the existing ultra-Orthodox. Their joint goal is to quash the government’s plan to create an area for mixed-gender prayer. On June 29, nationalists filed a petition with the Israeli High Court, the country’s equivalent of the United States’s Supreme Court, to block the egalitarian plaza.
“We must close this place immediately,” said Matti Dan, the leader of the nationalist Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, referring to the egalitarian plaza in an interview with the religious nationalist news site Arutz 7.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of moves that indicate the nationalists plan to invest time and money to fight the mixed-gender prayer space in the “Robinson’s Arch” area south of the traditional Western Wall. The plan to build the new space, issued after years of negotiation, hit a snag in the spring amid ultra-Orthodox protest.
In early June, the government said it needed another three weeks — on top of the 60 days it had already asked for — to figure out what to do. The intervention of the settlers makes it even less likely that the government will fulfill its promises to the non-Orthodox activists, such as the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States and Israel.
The nationalists want to stop pluralistic groups from getting a slice of the wall because they see the egalitarian space as an impediment to cementing Jewish control over nearby contested holy sites, like the Holy Esplanade, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Dan said that the fate of the Temple Mount is tied up in the egalitarian plaza, warning that Orthodox control could “weaken… on all fronts” if the plan goes through.
Dan did not respond to a request for comment from the Forward.
Dan’s group is “very sensitive to everything connected to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall,” said Yair Sheleg, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute’s Religion and State project.
The nationalists’ petition claims that the government violated its own rules by not consulting with the Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem in its plan for the plaza. It also says that the plaza plan undermines the legal authority of the Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay. Azoulay has refused to sign the paperwork to implement the government’s plan for the plaza, leading to a stalemate between the government, the ultra-Orthodox and the pluralistic groups today.
Yitzhar Hess, the leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the petition “another attempt … to sabotage the courageous attempt from the more moderate sides of the factions in Israeli society to bring peace to one of the most difficult conflicts in Jerusalem today.”
The petition comes on the heels of another bold provocation by Orthodox nationalists at the Western Wall. On July 14, they helped stage a prayer service at the site where Reform and Conservative Jews hope to build their egalitarian plaza.
The service, conducted by Jerusalem chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, included a partition between male and female worshippers. Hess said it was an insult to non-Orthodox leaders who want that spot to be a haven for mixed prayer.
Sheleg predicted that the prayer service at which there were several Ateret Cohanim affiliates could indicate that Orthodox nationalists will be “more involved” in the Western Wall spat in the future.
Indeed, HaLiba, a coalition of nationalist groups which was one of the signatories to the petition to the High Court, said that over the past few months it has ramped up its efforts to protest against the egalitarian plaza by meeting with politicians and disseminating anti-plaza “propaganda,” in the words of Yigal Canaan, one of its representatives.
Canaan said that part of the reason that his group is going after non-Orthodox Jews on the Western Wall issue is because the non-Orthodox are allies of other causes — like gay and Arab rights — that Canaan believes will weaken the Jewish nature of the state of Israel.
“Non-religious organizations are using the Reform as a Trojan Horse for Israeli society,” he said.
The leaders fighting for egalitarian prayer rights say they are wary of the new nationalist effort, though it won’t change their plans to protest the government’s inaction on their egalitarian plaza by bringing pluralistic delegations to the Western Wall.
“The ultra nationalists don’t like the idea that progressive forces will put their leg in this area,” said Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel. “They identify us not only as an egalitarian movement, but as a people who are standing in their way to control the entire area of holy Jewish sites of Jerusalem.”
The non-Orthodox groups are planning a global protest movement to threaten the Israeli government with a loss of political support from the United States, its most important ally. But masterminding such a large action will be difficult, experts say.
American Jews are the “only force politically that can get the government to move on the Kotel issue,” but other than a vocal minority of Reform and Conservative Jews, most American Jews care more about the Palestinian issues and not enough about the Western Wall, said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Most non-Orthodox Israelis, aside from a small, if growing, minority of Reform and Conservative Jews, are not very moved by the issue, either. Secular Israelis, by definition, care less about religion, and tend to leave it to the Orthodox.
Daniel Luria, the spokesman of Ateret Cohanim, said that his organization is “not involved whatsoever” in the issue of the egalitarian plaza, even as he admitted that there may be individual activists who are working to undermine it.
“I know that Matti Dan is very concerned about the Reform infiltration to aspects of the Western Wall, which has been under the guise of Torah or the rabbinical word for 2,000 years,” he said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.