Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t win himself many friends among American Jews this week when he denounced the Reform and Conservative movements for trying to pressure him to keep his word about creating a space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza for egalitarian prayer. The movements backed the first-ever service at the site in which women read from the Torah this week, something that angered Israel’s religious establishment. But though Netanyahu’s effort to find a way out of this difficult religious and political tangle has not shown him at his best, it’s actually consistent with his stand on the other religious/political issue that has drawn much more interest from the international media: the future of the Temple Mount which overlooks the Wall.
On both these issues, Netanyahu favors the status quo. Which is to say that he favors letting the Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism — remain under the sole administration of a Muslim wakf that runs the mosques on the plateau and preventing Jews from praying there. He thinks those who support Jewish prayer there and who sponsor visits to the site — where Jews are harassed by Muslims who claim their presence offends their sensibilities — are providing fodder for those, like Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who want to use this issue to gin up hate and violence. Though he might admit that the status quo on the Mount is fundamentally unjust, it is arguably necessary for the maintenance of peace since any change there would likely be used to fire up a new holy war against Jews.
Similarly, the status quo at the Wall, which has been maintained as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a shrine that belongs to all Jews, is also necessary for the maintenance of peace, albeit within Netanyahu’s coalition rather than between two peoples. The compromise first promoted by Natan Sharansky that would have created a third section at the Wall for egalitarian prayer makes great sense if your goal is to promote Jewish unity as well as fairness. But opposition by the ultra-Orthodox parties stalled the plan. Those factions have great clout in the Knesset and the Cabinet while Reform and Conservative movements, who make up close to 90 percent of those Americans who affiliate with a synagogue, have few adherents and little influence in Israel.
The majority of Israelis are sick of the rabbinic establishment. But, like Netanyahu, who personally may favor compromise at the Wall, there is little sign that even the political left is willing to prioritize religious pluralism. Netanyahu needs the Orthodox parties (the same is true of any of his centrist or left-wing rivals) and as long as that is true, change at the Wall won’t happen. That means the Women of the Wall group and the non-Orthodox denominations will continue to push for their rights and the government will stand by as the Orthodox deny them. Like the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the status quo may not seem viable but somehow it continues with no end in sight.
But before we move on from this squabble, it’s fair to note there is plenty of hypocrisy to be found on both sides of the issue.
Orthodox opponents of egalitarian prayer at the Wall say the presence of women praying with prayer shawls or with Torah scrolls hurts their feelings and violates the sanctity of the Wall. That’s the same thing Muslims say about the sight of Jews walking about the Temple Mount compound or about the possibility that some might have the chutzpah to utter a prayer there. Though, to be fair, there is no threat of terror as there is in response to calls for change on the Temple Mount, Orthodox disruptions of egalitarian services in the Wall area are not unlike the harassment Jews face on the Temple Mount and just as obnoxious. The notion that Orthodox notions about normative Jewish religious behavior should invalidate the rights of non-Orthodox Jews is no more defensible than the position of Muslims who claim to be offended or threatened by the Jewish presence in the city. They also ignore the damage they are doing to the cause of support for Israel in the United States. This issue just adds to existing demographic and political problems that undermine Jewish unity.
But it is equally true that most of those liberal Jews who support equality for all Jewish denominations at the Wall are not supportive of the rights of Jews on the Temple Mount or to live in places in the West Bank — Hebron or Shilo — where Judaism began. Their claims that efforts to achieve peace are more important than Jewish rights may have some merit but the same can be said of Netanyahu’s criticisms of their efforts that could stir up the Haredim and potentially throw Jerusalem into disorder.
But more than that, it’s important for both sides in this Jewish religious civil war to understand that the real threat to Jews in Jerusalem is not the argument about the correct mode of Jewish prayer at the Wall. The Palestinians are pushing in international forums like UNESCO and via a campaign of incitement and violence to deprive all Jews of their rights at the Wall as well as the Temple Mount. The memory of the period between 1949 and 1967 when Jerusalem’s Old City was under exclusive Arab control and Jews were denied the right to visit or pray at their holy places ought to motivate both Orthodox and non-Orthodox to understand the stakes in the dispute over the city and to cooperate with each other. But unfortunately, so long as the Orthodox establishment — much like the Palestinians with respect to Israel —consider their dispute with the Reform and Conservative movements to be a zero sum game, the conflict will continue.