The stalled implementation of the plan to bring pluralistic Jewish prayer to the Kotel probably won’t cause a major rupture between American Jews and Israel, but it is further proof of the complaint that Israel guarantees religious freedom for all, except many Jews.
Emerging from a meeting on June 1 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Reform movement leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned about a breakdown between Israel and American Jewry if the Kotel plan, approved by Netanyahu’s government in January, were not executed. Conservative movement leader Rabbi Steve Wernick was equally frustrated, even if less dire: “Until it’s done, it’s not done,” he said.
The plan was designed to be a compromise over the prohibition of mixed-gender and women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which under Haredi Orthodox control is run essentially as an Orthodox synagogue. The agreement would have created a mixed-prayer area to the south. But it caused a furor in the Haredi community, with Haredi members of Netanyahu’s government opposing it after they supported it, and the Haredi rabbi of the Kotel similarly walking back his agreement to the plan.
In March, Netanyahu initiated a 60-day period to re-examine the deal. The 60 days were up last week. And so Wernick, Jacobs and other progressive leaders held what they said was an “emergency meeting” with the prime minister. But it’s unlikely that Netanyahu — who again voiced support for the plan — sees the Kotel plan and its implementation as an emergency, since the unhappiness pressure of several liberal religious leaders is nothing compared to the pressure of two Haredi political parties whose dissatisfaction could imperil Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Shas and United Torah Judaism have nothing to lose by opposing streams of Judaism they don’t believe in the existence of anyway. And Netanyahu is stuck in the middle.
In addition, the Kotel and religious pluralism (for Jews) are not key issues for most Israelis. So, there is little on his domestic front that Netanyahu needs to fear. And with issues such as BDS, Iran, Palestinian terror and other threats besieging Israel, vocal American supporters of pluralism and the Kotel plan should be very careful about painting Israel in too negative a light.
Perhaps it is, as Wernick suggested, that progressive Jews must be prepared to play the long game on Kotel pluralism. Or maybe they should start walking the walk — or praying the prayer — as one columnist suggested, by returning to some form of civil resistance similar to what Women of the Wall had been doing for years.
We are faced with an unfortunate reality: A year short of five decades since the Kotel was brought under Israeli control, it is still not a place for Jews to worship freely. That has to change.