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A Truce in the Kotel Wars?

The ongoing drama over who is allowed to pray at the Western Wall, and where, and how, and under what circumstances, encapsulates all that divides and distresses the Jewish people today, and all that can unify us.

We understand the skeptics and cynics. We appreciate how difficult it will be to pry control over what many consider Judaism’s holiest site from the Haredim, who treat it as their personal synagogue, with government acquiesence. But at this auspicious moment — as one Jewish year transforms into another and we pray to be transformed, too — we are inclined to put skepticism aside and opt for a more hopeful vision.

The latest chapter began on August 25, when a broad platform nearly 5,000 square feet in size was unveiled in the archaeological park at the southern end of the Kotel, near the ancient ruins of what is known as Robinson’s Arch. It is far larger than the platform erected some years ago as a half-hearted gesture to the Reform and Conservative Jews who won a court ruling allowing for egalitarian prayer. Far more accessible, too — open 24 hours a day, with no fee and with prayer books and shawls provided by the state.

Immediately there was verbal strife. Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett insisted that the platform was only an interim step on the way to a more comprehensive plan to provide an egalitarian prayer space in equal size and stature at the Kotel. That’s what was in a press release in English, anyhow. In the Hebrew press release, the “interim” sounded more permanent, as if this were a token offering to forestall a much more profound compromise.

The Conservative movement was cautiously welcoming, the Reform movement less so, and the Women of the Wall — who for decades have agitated to lead their own prayers in the women’s section — treated the new development as something between a bad joke and a spiritual cataclysm.

Natan Sharansky, who has placed his considerable personal stature behind his own bold plan to forge “one Western Wall for one Jewish people,” was publicly positive. Privately, observers wonder whether he has been deftly excised by government ministers who don’t understand what he understands: Resolving this issue is important to so many of the Diaspora Jews on whom Israel relies for support.

As the columnist Shmuel Rosner ruefully predicted, “the Kotel wars are going to continue.”

Can that really be the only scenario?

Women of the Wall and its indefatigable leader, Anat Hoffman, deserve mountains of respect. By diligently showing up, month after month, these women — mostly American born, but many more native Israelis (like Hoffman) than is credited — have forcefully and bravely changed the conversation.

But it’s increasingly clear that WOW’s immediate goal is substantively different from that of the majority of American Jews who only wish to pray in Israel as they do at home, men and women together. WOW’s objective is more specific. They want a place at the Kotel itself where women can pray as they wish.

Beyond the differences, however, there is room for common cause, because the underlying mission is the same: To break the monopoly of power over the Kotel held by the Haredim to ensure that this sacred place is governed by representatives of all Jews.

And the Netanyahu government, if it truly wanted to find a solution, could strike a compromise that would maintain the status quo at the existing Kotel while creating an equally important space to the south for egalitarian Jews, with a shared plaza that modeled inclusion and tolerance, and with a promise to reserve a morning each month for the Women of the Wall.

Utopian? Sure. Naive? Probably. Impossible?

Well, that depends on your view of Jewish behavior, doesn’t it? As we prepare to greet 5774, let us for a moment imagine a Kotel in harmony with the Jewish people.

L’shana tovah from everyone at the Forward.

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