Natan Sharansky was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a solution to a seemingly intractable dispute over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. To the surprise of no one who has followed the career of a man who has embodied both integrity and principle since his days as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, the head of the Jewish Agency did not fob off the assignment by coming up with a plan for further study or some other tactic for avoiding the controversy. Instead, he actually produced a proposal that would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass the little used section known as Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.
It’s a brilliant idea, but there’s only one problem with it. Even if, as expected, Netanyahu endorses the project, the chances of it being implemented are about as close to zero as you can imagine. It’s not just that the Orthodox establishment will cry foul and use all of their influence to ensure that it never happens. Nor will the enormous cost of such a scheme be the primary obstacle. Instead it will be a group that seemingly has no skin in the game over who controls the Kotel that will spike a plan that could go a long way toward promoting Jewish unity. Anyone who thinks the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount will consent to a course of action that will involve construction around the area and moving the ramp that allows access to the area isn’t thinking clearly.
Sharansky’s proposal calls for creating a space for prayer along the remnant of the Second Temple that will reportedly allow the egalitarian movements an area that is around the same space devoted to the existing men’s and women’s sections in the Wall Plaza. The Women of the Wall, a non-Orthodox group whose members wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah, have faced harassment and expulsion by the police from the women’s section of the Wall, which is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine for all Jews.
As Haaretz reports:
Under the proposal, sources said, the area now known as Robinson’s Arch on the southern end of the Wall will be greatly expanded to create a prayer space roughly equivalent to the existing men’s and women’s sections. Egalitarian prayer is currently permitted at the Arch, which is an archaeological site, but that prayer is only available at limited times and with an entrance fee. The expectation is that the enlarged space would be free and open around the clock, as the Kotel is now, but that could not be confirmed.
The plan also calls for the plaza surrounding the Wall to expand, so that visitors approaching the site in the Old City could clearly chose between praying at the egalitarian section, or the existing sections reserved only for men and for women. Still under discussion is governance of the new prayer area, but several sources said that they thought it would be run by something other than the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox organization that currently controls the Kotel.
This would create a sense of equality for all Jewish denominations at the Wall even though few Israelis support the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. This would have to proceed despite what will be furious Orthodox complaints and the likelihood of demonstrations and other disruptions by Haredim who may see this as a chance to exercise their not-inconsiderable clout in the capital. However, the absence of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in the current Israeli government may give Sharansky the room to get it approved by the Cabinet.
Finding the money for the new Wall section may be difficult in a time of government budget cuts, but given a will to see this through on Netanyahu’s part and the likelihood that some of the funds for it could be raised in the Diaspora, cash won’t be the primary obstacle.
But anyone who has any memory of the reaction of Muslims to the seemingly inoffensive opening of an entrance to the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 (during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister) knows that it is the Wakf that has the ultimate veto power over the idea.
Though the Wakf has been accused, with good reason, of conducting what is for all intents and purposes a campaign of vandalism on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, it has treated any construction in and around the Kotel as a plot to undermine the Temple Mount. Dozens were killed in rioting when Netanyahu authorized the opening of an entrance to the tunnels. Since then, similar threats have prevented any repair of the ramp leading to the Temple Mount even though Israel’s plans to do so would have primarily benefited the Wakf and non-Jews, since Jews are prohibited from praying there (the one exception to the policy of free access for all faiths at the holy places under Israeli rule in Jerusalem).
The idea that the Wakf will simply allow Israel to move the ramp or rebuild it in such a manner as to prevent it from dividing the sections of the Wall is a fantasy. So, too, is the idea that Netanyahu would risk such violence merely in order to placate the Women of the Wall or a Diaspora that is disgusted by the way the Orthodox govern the Kotel.
All of which is to say that Sharansky might as well have punted on the project. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that the Orthodox authorities will back off a bit and leave the Women of the Wall alone if they try and pray in the women’s section. In a perfect world, a new and expanded Kotel Plaza might solve the problem. But as we all know, Israel does not exist in a perfect world.