To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of a bold plan to provide equal space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem are greatly exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean they may not become true. Which is why it is so important that American Jews find every bit of common ground they can with Israelis to ensure that the plan’s myriad political, religious and financial obstacles are finally overcome. This is an idea that is too big, too symbolic, too freighted with all the complicated dynamics of Israel-Diaspora relations, to fail.
Are we overstating the case? Can prayer in one corner of Jerusalem mean that much? After all, the small, devoted band of Women of the Wall have been agitating for the right to pray at the Kotel for decades, and somehow American-Israel relations weren’t thrown off kilter.
But much has changed in the past year, here and there. When Jewish women are arrested at a holy site simply for donning prayer shawls and reciting the Sh’ma out loud, as they have been, many American Jews feel disenfranchised, alienated, angry at the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious expression at what the Diaspora considers the holiest of religious sites. As it so happens, many Israelis are angry over the ultra-Orthodox hegemony — not with regards to the Kotel, but as it pertains to marriage, divorce, conversion, military draft exemptions and welfare subsidies. Israelis voiced this sentiment loudly at the last election, reshaping the ruling coalition and essentially granting Americans permission to echo their version of the sentiment, too.
While many American Jews are reluctant to criticize the Israeli government over security issues, that hesitancy doesn’t apply to religious pluralism. You mean a mother can’t stand with her son at his bar mitzvah at the Wall? You mean a Reform or Conservative rabbi can’t officiate at my daughter’s wedding? The irony that Jews have more religious freedom outside Israel than in it is not lost on people here.
Which is why the plan offered by Natan Sharansky, as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, while far from perfect, was embraced warmly by American Jews and shrewdly by the Israeli prime minister. If an equal space for egalitarian prayer can be constructed and the Kotel plaza expanded to include that alongside the current Orthodox area, then that sends a powerful statement to the world’s Jews: There are many authentic paths to prayer, and all are welcome.
“For the first time, there will literally be this incredibly dramatic choice,” Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in an interview. “This will be a game changer, in every significant way.” And the consequences of inaction? “For the State of Israel, they are serious,” Jacobs said. “For the unity of the Jewish people, disastrous.”
To prevent any further unraveling, the Israeli government must move quickly to create facts on the ground by sketching out more details and creating a timetable for financing and construction of the egalitarian prayer space and the expanded plaza. The government also must ensure that, in the interim, the arrests and harassment of women who try to respectfully pray at the Kotel will stop.
Are we overstating the case? “When North American Jews envisage Israel, it’s the Kotel that comes to mind,” Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said in an interview. “The symbolism of the Kotel as heart and soul of the Jewish people around the world cannot be underestimated.” Nor can it anymore be dismissed.