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.
The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.
The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.
But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.
In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.
Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.