Israel should be a place where all Jews are welcome, appreciated and treated with respect. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed repeatedly to uphold this vision by allowing the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition to spew hatred of other Jews and to bring the government into disrepute by violating Torah precepts of ahavat Yisrael.
It is not only a matter of what happens at the Kotel. The religious parties in his coalition are being hijacked by elements in the haredi community who are utterly opposed to compromise and are in league with the Rabbinut (Chief Rabbinate) to inflict great distress and injustice on fellow Jews, including secular Jews, by discriminating against them in matters of conversion, marriage, divorce, adoption and attempting to outlaw public transportation on Shabbat.
These rules also inflict harm on the 20 percent of the Israeli population who are not Jewish.
I think the entire Kotel area should be designated as an Israeli National Heritage Site and not treated as a synagogue at all. The latter situation is of very recent origin. As old photos attest, prior to 1948, everyone mingled freely at the Kotel without gender-separation or formal religious supervision of the site. Handing control of the Kotel over to the ultra-Orthodox after the 1967 war was a terrible mistake. The site should be administered by a non-religious entity. Everyone who wishes to visit the Kotel should be able to do so, and there should be no gender discrimination or rules against men and women congregating in the same space.
If necessary to preserve the peace, I would even say religious services should not be conducted there by any group, egalitarian or otherwise. (This has been suggested by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo in his recent blogpost titled “The Kotel — Have We Gone Mad?” that can be found on Facebook and online at cardozoacademy.org).
If religious services are allowed to take place, there should be accommodation for egalitarian services as well as those with a mechitzah
(partition), whether that is done by appropriating separate sections along the length of the Kotel or setting up different hours for different services (as is already done at traditional mikva’ot and many Jewish community center pools).
In the short run, the Robinson’s Arch site should be expanded and improved in terms of access for egalitarian groups to use for services without interference from Orthodox groups as has happened several times in recent months. But the goal should be to find a way for egalitarian services to be held at the Kotel itself, not around the corner in a relatively tiny “back-of-the-bus” location.
Netanyahu claims to be helpless here, but no one forced him to include Shas and United Torah Judaism (the two ultra-Orthodox religious parties) in his current coalition. He made that choice because for his own political purposes he wanted to exclude certain centrist parties from the government, whose presence in the previous coalition was what made it possible for the religious parties to be excluded.
Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in November 2014 and brought down his own government forcing new elections that were held in March 2015. To claim that he has no choice but to knuckle under to the demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism is the height of duplicity. He can and should boot them from his coalition and form a new, national unity government that would be free of religious coercion.
I think it is also important to point out that the January 2016 Kotel agreement, which Netanyahu has now reneged on, had a fatal flaw: It would have given the ultra-Orthodox authorities total and unfettered control over the main plaza, undoing several Israeli court decisions that previously had upheld the right of the original Women of the Wall to daven with tallit, tefillin and sefer Torah at the Kotel. That would have been a huge step back and, for this reason, I am not completely sorry that the January 2016 agreement has gone up in smoke.
As Shulamit S. Magnus, a founding member of Women of the Wall, pointed out in the Jerusalem Post on June 29 (“After the Western Wall Deal: Don’t Get Mad – Educate”), a return to the status quo ante gives all sides the opportunity to rethink the issues and hopefully lead to a better plan — one which gives all Jews access to the Kotel. An end to haredi control over the site. Equal treatment for everyone. •
Nancy F. Kaplan lives in West Bloomfield.