When the Israeli cabinet approved a proposal intended to resolve a festering conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, no one seemed to notice the parallels between this “two-wall solution” and the “two-state solution” that many leaders have proposed to resolve the long-simmering conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Both of these “solutions” seek to resolve the most serious political problems that emerged in the aftermath of Israel’s military success in the Six-Day War of 1967, when the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, and efforts to establish new “status quos” began. Just as it would be foolhardy and unsustainable to ignore the problem necessitating the “two-state solution” for Israelis and Palestinians, Israel can’t keep ignoring the problem necessitating the “two-wall solution” for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
Israel’s conquest of the West Bank meant that the question of recognition of the Palestinians’ right to their own state on territory now controlled by Israeli soldiers and later filled with growing numbers of Israeli settlers would become the central source of conflict for the next half century.
Similarly, Israel’s liberation of the Western Wall, or Kotel, created a flashpoint for tension between the traditions of Orthodox Jews and those of liberal Jews, who constitute the majority of American Jewry. Here, too, a question of recognition was at stake, this time regarding whether the Kotel would be a place where the values and worship practices of liberal Jews would be accepted, or whether it would be a spot governed by Orthodox norms advocating the separation of women and men for prayer.
In the century leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, the Kotel had served mostly as a symbol of Jewish unity; it was a sacred space shared by Jews of different traditions, including secular Zionists. There was no permanent mechitza to separate men and women, and 19th-century pictures of the Kotel often depict men and women standing right next to each other.
Not surprisingly, Jews in Israel celebrated the early weeks after their successful re-taking of the Kotel in 1967 by gathering together in unity at the Kotel, ignoring differences in religious practice, gender or ethnicity.
But within weeks after the war’s end, the chief rabbis of Israel ordered a formal, permanent separation of men and women at the Kotel, and rabbinic rulings established the area in front of the Kotel as having the same status as an Orthodox synagogue. This created new standards for religious practice at the Kotel, which had never been formalized in this way until then.
Newspaper editorials at the time warned that new religious “traditions” were being invented as the “status quo” for the Kotel. As a result of these changes, the authority of Orthodox Judaism to police the acceptable forms of worship there began to take root.
Less than a month after the Israeli government announced its recent two-wall plan for the Kotel, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and political parties in Israel closed ranks in opposition to the plan and insisted that the “status quo,” the Orthodox way of managing the Kotel that was put in place in 1967, must be maintained. In their view, the values and traditions of Reform and Conservative Jews represent the greatest threat to Judaism and to the Jewish people, and therefore it is impossible to recognize their perspectives. To do so, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem recently ruled, would be tantamount to demolishing the Kotel itself.
Obviously, there are religious Zionists, settlers and others who likewise believe that any recognition or negotiation with Palestinians for any part of “Greater Israel” poses a comparable existential threat to Israel. Yet there are also Israeli leaders, even hawkish ones, who have endorsed a “two-state solution” because of their fear of damage to the character of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.
Given the size and political influence of the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in the United States, if not in Israel itself, depriving them of any recognition at the Kotel is just as untenable a long-term strategy as depriving Palestinians of their sovereignty would be.
The two-wall solution that was just approved — only to be jeopardized again — is far from perfect, yet it does offer liberal Jews an opportunity for non-Orthodox prayer at a new section of the Kotel. At the same time, it will strengthen Orthodox hegemony over worship, dress and religious gender roles at the original section of the Kotel, where demonstrations and disruptions from non-Orthodox Jews or “Women of the Wall” will no longer be tolerated.
Sadly, it is not certain whether even this limited solution will be able to overcome ultra-Orthodox resistance. But even if it is implemented, the plan will not recapture the sense of peaceful unity and co-existence among Jews that once existed at the Kotel. For in addition to the two walls for two groups of Jews, an invisible wall separating Orthodox and liberal Jews will have been affirmed as the new status quo.
Stuart Z. Charmé is Professor of Religion at Rutgers University at Camden and the maker of the documentary film “Kotel: Jewish Teens on Gender and Tradition.”