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Western Wall Prayer Deal Crumbling as Rivals Stage Dueling ‘Provocations’

The temporary takeover by Orthodox worshippers of the area at the Western Wall designated for non-Orthodox services combined with doubts about the Israeli government promise to sanction egalitarian prayer there has spurred non-Orthodox leaders to abandon the plan for a separate space and revert to their original demand: for their own section at the existing prayer plaza.

On June 14, worshippers set up a physical divider between men and women on for a service led by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. In response, Israeli Reform and Conservative movements scheduled a mixed-gender prayer service for the afternoon of June 16. They also declared that they had made a mistake in accepting the government’s plan in the first place, and raised the threat of a split between Israel and its most important diaspora supporter: American Jews. It’s the Western Wall activists’s strongest bargaining chip — but it might not be strong enough, experts say.

“The big, important thing is the strategic alliance with the United States,” said Anat Hoffman, the director of the prayer rights group Women of the Wall. “This rift carries a threat.”

Amar’s service indicated the government was not serious about implementing its recommendations to create an egalitarian plaza at Robinson’s Arch, an area south of the traditional Western Wall, said Yizhar Hess, the head of the Conservative movement in Israel. Those recommendations, issued after years of deliberation, 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 implement its plan.

“The provocation dramatically escalated the feeling that this government is not going to implement the deal and is giving officials the right to spit in the eyes of Jews who are not Orthodox,” Hess said.

The deal includes not only the egalitarian space but also an entrance shared with worshippers using the Haredi-controlled areas and roles for non-Orthodox representatives on a board overseeing the entire Western Wall area. If the government does implement its plan by the July 5 deadline, the non-Orthodox coalition will accept it, said Hess. But it’s a “package deal,” he emphasized. The coalition will not compromise further on the shared entrance or the governance roles, items that the Haredi communities opposed to the deal find particularly offensive.

If the plan languishes further, American and Israeli leaders, as well as Women of the Wall, have threatened to organize a large protest movement and refocus their energies on fighting for their rights at the traditional Wall. They warn of protest missions to Israel or demonstrations outside Israeli consulates abroad.

Hoffman said Women of the Wall and its allies would work to bring the North Americans who tend to visit Israel during the summer — federation missions, synagogue groups, organized tours, families — to the Wall, and provide them with a Torah scroll to pray against the rules in the women’s section. Regulations prohibit private scrolls at the site, and its rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, refuses to allow women to use the public Torahs from the men’s side.

“Take the time to take a Torah scroll and stand there with men or women,” Hoffman said. “Say this is not an issue we are willing to tolerate.”

The threat of a global protest movement — activists say they hope it will reach the proportions of the struggle to save Soviet Jewry — is the biggest leverage point for the non-Orthodox coalition in their fight for the egalitarian plaza.

But analysts say it is unlikely that such a large-scale movement will come together. Furthermore, they say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to side with the ultra-Orthodox in this fight, rather than risk his governing coalition over the egalitarian prayer space. Even with the recent addition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party to his coalition, Netanyahu still governs with a slim majority, making him reliant on ultra-Orthodox parties.

“If anything, the incursion of the Orthodox into the Reform and Conservative space underscores the power of the Orthodox in Israel,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “They can operate this way: ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.’”

A compromise with the ultra-Orthodox is “not in the cards,” said Yedidia Stern, the head of the Religion and State project at the Israel Democracy Institute. He predicts that Netanyahu will “form another committee or do whatever shtick and trick he can” to delay the implementation of the plan. “From a practical point of view he doesn’t have an option,” said Stern.

Meanwhile, the non-Orthodox coalition partners say they are in the fight for the long haul. Hess predicted that one day people will look back at the restrictions on female prayer at the Western Wall the same way they look at the historic ban on female voting in the United States.

“People will look back on these days and they will say, ‘Really?’” he said.

But it’s not at all certain that the non-Orthodox partners will be able to attract the large number of protesters to the Western Wall that will convince Netanyahu that he risks Israel’s relationship with American Jewry by backing out of the egalitarian plaza.

Cohen acknowledges that 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 don’t care enough about the Western Wall. The Western Wall is an issue that “requires a lot of familiarity with Israeli society and so the only major supporters of the Kotel changes would be Conservative and Reform official leaders, both rabbis and lay people,” he said. Among other American Jews, “the public is far more concerned about the conflict with the Palestinians than they are about religious issues,” he said.

Religious plurality in Israel “should be the demand of Jews in Israel, not only Jews in North America,” said Stern. But 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 see it as the domain of the Orthodox. “Even though you might not like the Orthodox, you can see as a secular Israeli that Orthodoxy represents authentic religiosity,” said Cohen.

What’s more, non-Orthodox Jews have less political clout in the current Israeli government. “Even if the secular Jews cared about this issue as much as the Orthodox Jews, the secular Jews voted for the opposition parties,” Cohen said.

Cohen believes that a Supreme Court case to force religious plurality at the Western Wall could be a more effective strategy, and it’s one that has been raised by the non-Orthodox coalition in the past. The Supreme Court “as a matter of legality would like to see better treatment of non-Orthodox parties and people in Israeli society,” he said.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or Helen chernikoff at [email protected]

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