Starting in the year 2000, following a long legal and public awareness battle, liberal Jews have had the right, granted by the State of Israel, to pray in the southern section of the Western Wall plaza. Alongside other liberal Jewish movements, the Israeli Conservative movement has since maintained prayer shawls and prayer books there in an effort to encourage pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is honored by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Because prayer on the Temple Mount itself is forbidden for Jews by the State of Israel, aside from the subterranean Temple Tunnels, the Western Wall (or Kotel, in Hebrew) is the closest to their holiest site Jews can worship.
The egalitarian area is often nicknamed “Robinson’s Arch” for the famous archaeological artifact found there, in what is also the Davidson Archaeological Park. This area adjacent to the Western Wall currently contains two main areas of temporary prayer platforms, which are built over and among the archaeological remains.
The larger section, which from below recalls rickety bleachers, does not actually touch the Western Wall but rather sits approximately 10 meters from it. The second, noncontiguous section, is broken up into several landings before reaching the Western Wall on a modest-sized platform.
The 450-meter larger platform was opened with much fanfare in August 2013 by Naftali Bennett, then the religious affairs minister. At the time, Bennett said it was meant to be “an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”
Bennett was spurred by court cases brought by the Women of the Wall group, led by Anat Hoffman, whose members desire to worship at the Western Wall with prayer shawls and phylacteries and read from the Torah, especially in mass prayer services at the beginning of each Hebrew month.
The Women of the Wall had won a District Court judgment that April which gave its members the right to pray in the women’s section of the main plaza with shawls and phylacteries. Bennett reportedly preferred to carve out a separate space for the women and liberal Jews in an effort to ease tensions between them and Orthodox worshipers.
“The Kotel [Western Wall] belongs to all Jews no matter who they are and what stream of Judaism they come from,” said Bennett in 2013. “This new platform, built ahead of Rosh Hashanah, will help unify the Jewish people and enable all Jews to pray freely at the Kotel.”
The 2013 temporary platform was met by skepticism — and in some cases disdain — by leaders of Diaspora Jewry and the Women of the Wall, who at that point sought a space at the more normative Western Wall complex, or, at the very least, a permanent solution.
In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit to aid in leading negotiation efforts to reach a compromise acceptable to liberal Jewry, the Women of the Wall, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, otherwise known as the rabbi of the western wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch.
The agreement of the ultra-Orthodox to such a compromise was vital, but difficult at best. Seeds of an impending ultra-Orthodox revolt were clear throughout the years of negotiations. Even back in April 2013, Western Wall rabbi Rabinovitch told Orthodox rabbis during a visit to North America that attempts to “divide the prayer plaza or delineate hours [designated for egalitarian services] will face strong opposition and bring about a civil war.”
Nonetheless, after years of negotiations, on January 31, 2016, the government passed a decision, colloquially called the “Kotel deal,” which was heralded by media the world over.
The historic compromise was multifaceted in its impact: The egalitarian prayer would continue in the southern area of the Western Wall, but there would be one entrance for all to the Western Wall plaza, which would lead to the different pluralistic, men’s and women’s pavilions.
There was to be a joint committee of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials overseeing the southern area. The existing Orthodox prayer pavilion would be administered by Rabinovitch. Additionally, the temporary prayer platforms would double in size and be more connected — giving much more access to the Western Wall for prayer in the Davidson archaeological park and room for up to 1,200.
The plan called for a budget of NIS 35 million (almost $9 million) in 2016-2017. According to the cabinet decision, NIS 5 million would come from the Prime Minister’s Office, NIS 5 million from the Diaspora Ministry (2017) and NIS 5 million from the Finance Ministry. The Jewish Agency pledged another NIS 10 million and the Finance Ministry was to come up with the remaining NIS 10 million for 2016.
For some, this 2016 compromise was not a victory, but a defeat: Senior archaeologists decried the decision to repurpose a park devoted to millennia of national heritage. Additionally, many members of the Women of the Wall splintered off into another group, which calls itself the Original Women of the Wall, and is determined to continue prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, not in the egalitarian section.
However, the main WOW group termed the compromise a feminist victory. “In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel. The creation of a third section of the Kotel sets a strong precedent in women’s status in Israel: women as administrators of a holy site, women as leaders, women as influential force not to be ignore or silenced,” wrote the Women of the Wall in a statement.
Whether it was the triumphalist statements broadcast by world Jewry, or a delayed regret, within days of the government decision ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset decried the deal — even after having accepted it and voted for it — and vowed to derail its implementation.
On June 25, 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a terse statement announcing the cabinet vote, which called for a “freezing” of the Western Wall pluralist prayer pavilion. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman have been appointed as government representatives for new negotiations, the statement said.
However, according to a Facebook video released by Bennett, the temporary platform he constructed next to the Western Wall in 2013 is still set to be expanded and made more permanent.
JTA contributed to this report.