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Will Jerusalem Violence Kill Egalitarian Prayer Plan for Western Wall?

The proposed egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which was meant to serve non-Orthodox Jews worldwide, looks like the latest casualty of the terror wave hitting Israel.

Progress on the initiative – supported both by the Israeli government and Jewish organizations – had been slow in coming, even before tensions over Jerusalem’s holy sites reached boiling point this month. Two-and-a-half years after Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky first announced his proposal to build a new plaza on the southern section of the wall, agreement has yet to be reached on how it might look.

But even if the almost-unthinkable happened and the ultra-Orthodox delegates accepted all the conditions of the Reform and Conservative movements – not to mention the tefillin-donning feminist activists of Women of the Wall – for equal visibility and accessibility, the plan would still stand little chance of being implemented today. Certainly not while the Jordanians, who serve as custodians of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, are scrutinizing every Israeli move in and around the Temple Mount.

Situated right beneath the eye of the storm, the Western Wall is very much on the Muslim world’s radar these days – and any new construction in the vicinity would be cause for suspicion.

“Considering the political sensitivities today, you cannot even move one pebble from right to left or from left to right in the area,” says Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman.

And Israel’s need to avert a diplomatic crisis with Jordan and assuage Palestinian fears of a Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount is not the only impediment to building the non-Orthodox prayer space.

Two weeks ago, an Israeli court handed over control of the archaeological site next to the designated egalitarian prayer plaza to Elad, a right-wing organization that has been supporting archaeological digs in the area and Jewish settlement in the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Even if the court ruling does not give Elad direct control of the designated prayer space, such a deal is still unacceptable for the non-Orthodox movement leaders.

“We were told that the non-Orthodox movements couldn’t be in charge of the egalitarian space because the whole area by the Western Wall is too important to be handed over to private organizations,” said a delegate to the negotiations, who asked not to be named. “If that’s the case, why are they handing over control of the whole archaeological park to a private organization?”

Batya Kallus, a member of the Women of the Wall board who has represented the group at negotiations over the new prayer space, noted, “The court decision does divide that area up into two separate spaces: one that will be controlled by Elad; and one that won’t. But you can’t really look at these as two separate areas. Architecturally, that’s ridiculous.”

Asked to estimate the chances of the egalitarian plaza coming to fruition in light of these obstacles, a source active in negotiations said the odds were “80-20 that it’s not going to happen.”

Hoffman is even less optimistic, regarding these figures as overly high. “You can call these the final nails in the coffin,” she says.

Were it not for Hoffman and her organization, it is unlikely the government would have ever given serious consideration to a non-Orthodox prayer space at one of Judaism’s holiest sites. Three years ago, the relatively small prayer group – which typically draws a few dozen worshippers to its monthly service at the Western Wall – made international news when its members were arrested for wearing prayer shawls and singing at the holy site, actions that Orthodox Judaism reserves for men.

World Jewish leaders put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ultimately gave Sharansky the task of finding a solution to the controversy over prayer regulations at the Kotel.

The original Sharansky plan envisaged a space that would be a continuation of the existing gender-separated prayer areas, equal in space and in overall look. It soon became clear, though, that such a plan was unfeasible given the archaeological excavations in the area, as well as the need to avoid any construction work that might impinge on Muslim sites. Netanyahu subsequently appointed a committee, headed by his cabinet secretary, Avichai Mendelblit, to devise a new plan that would be based, in broad strokes at least, on the Sharansky initiative.

Two years ago, when the negotiations were well underway, Naftali Bennett – the head of the right-wing, religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party who also served as minister of Jerusalem affairs at the time – decided to take matters into his own hands. Without consulting with any other members of the negotiating team, he set up a platform overnight, situated near the southern part of the wall and invited non-Orthodox Jews to hold their prayer services and ceremonies there. Women of the Wall, who refer to this platform disparagingly as “the sundeck,” have boycotted it from day one since they consider it inadequate. The non-Orthodox movements have made some use of the space, though less and less over time.

According to a spokesman for the Habayit Hayehudi leader, ever since he was relieved of the Jerusalem portfolio following the last election, Bennett has not been involved in negotiations over the egalitarian prayer space.

For Hoffman, who was never a big fan of the plan to begin with, recent developments have provided a welcome excuse to pull out. Today, she’s already talking about an alternative solution. “Let’s take the existing segregated spaces and divide them into three sections, instead of two,” she says. “Rather then giving two-thirds to the men, like you have now, we should divide it into three equal parts – one for men, one for women, and one for egalitarian prayer services.”

Unlike Hoffman, the other members of the negotiating team are sticking it out.

“There continues to be serious discussion,” says Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel. “Right now, our efforts are being devoted to reaching agreement on the physical characteristics of the space.”

Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, still harbors hope that a compromise will be reached, but admits that “it is not around the corner.”

Through his spokesman, Sharansky also made an attempt to sound upbeat, saying, “We’ve been working hard to bring about a wide-ranging political consensus.”

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