Just four months ago the plan approved by the government to create a large, state-recognized pluralist prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall was hailed as an “historic landmark” and “a huge accomplishment.”
But following a determined rearguard action from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political leadership since the cabinet decision in January, the agreement now appears badly stalled.
In particular, it is the stipulation of the plan to create one common entrance to the entire Western Wall complex for all visitors – Orthodox, Reform and Conservative alike – that has generated the most severe opposition from haredi leaders.
According to the plan, the pluralist prayer area would be accessible from inside the main Western Wall complex, and the agreement states specifically that “access to the [pluralist] section will be through an entryway shared by both prayer sections.”
This stipulation was a key demand of the Women of the Wall, as well as the Reform and Conservative Movements, so as to give visitors a clear and accessible choice between the central plaza, which will formally become an Orthodox prayer area under the terms of January’s agreement, and the pluralist section.
As the leader of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, said following the approval of the plan, “This will be the best symbol that there is more than one way to be a Jew in the State of Israel.”
In addition, the existing pluralist space at the southern end of the Western Wall was for a long time only accessible via the archeological garden adjacent to the Dung Gate, although there is now access to the pluralist section outside the main plaza via a nondescript metal turnstile.
This situation has been seen as unequal and undignified, and Women of the Wall chairwomen Anat Hoffman used to frequently refer disparagingly to efforts to relocate her prayer group to the southern section, known as the Robinson’s Arch area, as an attempt to put them “out of sight and out of mind.”
For Women of the Wall and the progressive denominations, the common entrance for all visitors affords the pluralist prayer space equal standing and legitimacy to the Orthodox section and recognition of their movements as deserving of equal rights in the Jewish state.
The haredi leadership meanwhile opposes a shared entrance to the Western Wall for the very reasons that Women of the Wall, along with the Reform and Conservative Movements, insisted on it.
In April, senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said specifically equal recognition at the Western Wall for progressive Jews was not acceptable for the haredi world, citing the opinions of the late, haredi leaders Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner.
“Their opinion was ‘we will never ever recognize the Reform,’ and therefore we distance ourselves from them… We will not allow them to be with us in any way. Not at the entrance to the Kotel, not at the exit, we won’t allow in any way recognition of the Reform, and not those similar to them,” said Gafni in April.
He also said that he would do “everything in my power” so that secular Israelis do not go to the pluralist section.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Gafni reiterated this position, saying he is “against the Reform, period.”
He added that UTJ is still insisting that there is no shared entrance for the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections, saying “we don’t want them next to us.”
The reason behind the opposition of the haredi spiritual and hence political leadership to such recognition is for the most part a vestige and inherited antipathy for the progressive movements which broke away from Orthodoxy in the 19th century.
In November last year, Health Minister and UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman touched on this idea when reacting to news of state funding for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel saying “Throughout the generations, we have known that the Reform and Conservative [movements] are tearing the Jewish people apart.”
Several haredi sources have said this week that there has been little progress on resolving this specific issue.
On Monday, Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef both met with cabinet secretary David Sharan who is supposed to be formulating a bridging proposal to resolve the impasse.
A source in the chief rabbi’s office told the Post that Sharan had presented no concrete plans as to how to formulate a mutually acceptable agreement and said that there had been “no progress” on bridging these gaps.