‘Disappointment and frustration” characterized the mood at the end of Wednesday’s high-level meeting on a planned pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall with top Liberal Jewish leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement after the meeting saying that he continues to work on the issue and is committed to resolving the matter. Netanyahu attended about a third of the 90-minute meeting.
Jacobs said he expected to see progress in a matter of weeks. “There is a deep concern, bordering on disbelief, that this deal may not be implemented,” Jacobs said.
The Western Wall compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision that reflected the work of years of negotiations, called for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in an area of the Davidson Archeological park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.
The plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” throughout most of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement — a headline which splashed across international media — the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition who view the Western Wall pavilion as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been stymied for the past four months.
In mid-March, according to a Channel 10 report, Interior Minister Arye Deri told his associates the Western Wall plan “is over.”
“We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage and not for divorce,” Deri later told Channel 2 news.
For Diaspora Jewry, which is overwhelmingly non-Orthodox, the Western Wall plan is significant because of its recognition of a plurality of Jewish denominations. “We express our love for the Jewish state every day,” said Jacobs Wednesday. “We need to feel some love in return. It’s a huge part of what this agreement signals.”
“This agreement, if it falters, its collapse will signal a major rift between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel,” said Jacobs.
“We have a coalition too,” said Jacobs while on his way to Ben Gurion Airport following Wednesday’s meeting. “We are the representatives of the overwhelming majority of Jewish people in North America. We are not a fringe group.”
Jacobs flew to Israel for this meeting with American Conservative movement leaders Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and Rabbi Steven Wernick, and Jewish Federations of North America head Jerry Silverman. They were at the table with Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman, Israeli Reform movement leader Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Israeli Masorti movement head Yizhar Hess and the federations’ Israel and overseas head Rebecca Caspi. Netanyahu were there for about half an hour.
The Jewish leaders said in a statement put out after the meeting, “Admittedly we are frustrated, however we look forward to measurable progress being made in the coming weeks. Millions of Jews in Israel and around world are looking to the Israeli government to implement this agreement and in doing so, to give respect to Jews everywhere, honoring all expressions of Judaism.”
Wednesday’s “emergency” 90-minute session took place to coincide with the end of a 60-day extension requested by Netanyahu who had called for a new fact-finding task force on the issue of the pluralistic plaza, headed by chief of staff David Sharan.
Although Netanyahu reportedly “reiterated his commitment to the coalition agreement,” the Diaspora negotiating team found an utter lack of progress in its implementation, said Jacobs.
During the meeting, Netanyahu “expressed that this agreement was a set of principles and set of commitments,” said Jacobs. However, he said, because of the prime minister’s “complicated political reality” it will require strong leadership and a broad view of what is good for the entire Jewish people to actualize.
“We intend to hold the prime minister to his commitment. We’re not picking up our marbles and going home,” said Jacobs. “We made it clear that the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] need to affirm this agreement. When they’re committed to this agreement and moving forward, we’re open to compromise.”
Among the sticking points of the Western Wall plan for the ultra-Orthodox parties are its government funding and a unified entrance to the Western Wall prayer areas, which would split off for the single-gender Orthodox men and women’s areas, and the mixed-gender pluralistic prayer section.
“We’ve shown ourselves a people of compromise. We’re not digging in our heels and being entrenched, but compromise is a two-way street,” said Jacobs.
‘This is not a moment when I’m bringing a victory flag’
From Israel, Jacobs is flying to St. Louis for a convention of Reform leadership.
“This is not a moment when I’m bringing a victory flag. I am bringing a message that this deal is still alive, and that we’ll continue to stand up strongly for it.”
But Jacobs is still innately optimistic about the implementation of the pluralistic Western Wall pavilion, and points as example to his movement. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, Reform is today the largest Disapora denomination and continues to grow “in size and strength and love of Judaism.”
“We’re about making impossible things happen every day,” said Jacobs.
AP contributed to this article.