When Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky came up with a compromise solution for egalitarian prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall three years ago, non-Orthodox Jewry rejoiced. The plan, which was eventually approved by the government, would have ended many years of conflict over the desire of adherents of Reform and Conservative Jewry to hold egalitarian services at the sacred site that now operates as an open-air Orthodox synagogue with separate areas for men and women.
Now, however, it seems likely the plan will collapse. That ought not to happen. Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly knows it would be a disaster for Israel’s standing among American Jews if it did. But internal Israeli politics may tell the tale here.
The plan called for the construction of a common entrance to three areas at the iconic Western Wall Plaza—the men’s area, the women’s area, with a new third section at the southern end of the wall at the Robinson’s Arch archeological park for egalitarians. It followed many years during which the Women of the Wall group was attacked and subject to arrest for conducting their prayer services and non-Orthodox Jews were made to feel unequal at the site. The change was intended as a symbolic gesture largely to reassure committed American Jews—90 percent of whom identity with the non-Orthodox movements — that Israel truly is the home of all of the Jewish people.
But the 2015 Knesset election brought the Orthodox parties back into the government coalition after a two-year period on the outside, during which the Sharansky plan had been approved. That left the prime minister much less room for maneuver.
The government has stalled on funding for the development of the new plan. In the meantime, Haredi forces have redoubled their efforts to harass the egalitarian groups. Earlier this week Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar staged his own protest at the place that has served as a stopgap egalitarian prayer area, taking it over and installing a barrier separating men and women while denouncing the planned changes as “an unforgivable wrong” that would be a “desecration” of the site. Today, when Reform and Conservative Jews held a counter-protest service in the Plaza away from the area where the Orthodox pray, they were harassed and attacked by Haredim while the police stood by.
Netanyahu has consistently said the right things about this issue, and he condemned the Haredi attack today. But his words have not always been followed up by actions.
The problem for those hoping to save the compromise is that the political math makes it impossible for Netanyahu to defy the ultra-Orthodox parties at present. But the problem for those advocating pluralism runs deeper than just coalition politics. Most Israelis are not Orthodox and are actually deeply hostile to the state rabbinate that holds a monopoly on life-cycle events. That creates a natural constituency for efforts to end that monopoly. But the exercise of religious pluralism is a priority for only a minority. Unfortunately, many Israelis see the Women of the Wall and even the non-Orthodox denominations as troublemakers rather than as people with a justified demand for equal rights at a place that is the property of all Jews.
At a time when the Jewish state is losing support among American Jewry due to the often unfair bashing of Netanyahu and his government over the peace process, as well as the advances made by left-wing anti-Zionists who support the BDS movement, this is yet another blow to Jewish unity that Israel can ill afford. The spectacle of Haredi thugs roughing up non-Orthodox Jews is bad enough; the willingness of the state’s rabbinical authorities to join in the rhetorical assault is escalating the problem to a crisis.
A bold stroke by the prime minister to save the compromise would show vision on his part. But while Netanyahu might like to solve the problem of the Wall in a way that would satisfy Diaspora Jews, the odds that he would risk the future of his government to do so are slim and none. If the Sharansky compromise utlimately fails, it won’t be because the prime minister doesn’t know what’s at stake but because it’s unrealistic to expect any politician to fall on his sword on an issue without sufficient domestic support. In the meantime, the troubling wall between Israeli and American Jews will continue to rise.