Blue and White platform includes backing for Western Wall pluralistic plaza

Party source says decision to support establishment of prayer pavilion for non-Orthodox denominations born out of ‘commitment to rehabilitating the relationship with the Diaspora’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Jewish girls at the pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish girls at the pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Blue and White party platform will include a commitment to implement a currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and establish a first-of-its-kind body made up of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the site, a party source said Tuesday.

The policy proposal comes as part of a “specific commitment to rehabilitating the relationship with the Diaspora, born out of a sensitivity to the specific to the needs and views of Diaspora Jewry,” a Blue and White source said.

The party, which is projected to be the top vote-getter in April’s election, is set to release its platform this week, after weeks of speculation on the new faction’s positions.

According to the source, the party will call for the implementation of the full agreement reached between the government and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in January 2016, overturning a decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay any progress on the plan at the behest of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Netanyahu’s decision was met with outrage from a large swath of Diaspora Jewry, underlining a growing rift between Israel and the US Jewish community.

Taking a clear stance on the Western Wall deal would position the party in direct opposition to both Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties that fought it, as well as send a strong message of support to non-Orthodox denominations in the US and elsewhere.

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid, right, at the new alliance’s unveiling in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We believe in the shared fate of the Jewish people. They are a part of the Jewish people and as such, we need to take them into account,” the party source said of liberal and progressive Jewish communities.

The original plan, which Blue and White will push for, includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council made up of representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government representatives that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

Illustrative: A young member of Women of the Wall holds up the miniature Torah scroll during the monthly Rosh Hodesh service on June 25, 2017, in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, just before Netanyahu froze the Kotel Agreement. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

A remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Western Wall has been honored by Jews for thousands of years as place of pilgrimage and prayer. But, while anyone can access the wall and the prayer plaza it backs on to, the site is managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which imposes Orthodox practices on worshipers, separating men and women and prohibiting egalitarian prayer services.

The small platform currently used for pluralistic and egalitarian prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current mainstream Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.

Segregated-gender Orthodox prayer in the Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, July 13, 2018. (Eric Woodward)

Activists have demanded the plaza be raised dozens of feet to be on the same level as the main prayer plaza, and be connected directly to it. Access is now only possible via a series of makeshift stairs and ramps separated from the main plaza.

The original decision to build a new pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016, when the government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, it provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area at the site of the existing temporary one.

But on June 25, 2017, Netanyahu, facing intense ultra-Orthodox pressure, froze the compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with the construction of a permanent platform.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government meeting in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2017 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL; Flash 90)

Although the initial plan was warmly embraced by liberal and Diaspora Jewry, it was immediately met with controversy, as Israeli ultra-Orthodox politicians, who initially allowed the proposal to advance, responded to grassroots pressure in their communities to step in and work to prevent its implementation. As a result, several Diaspora Jewish organizations took up the cause of the pluralistic platform, which has become a point of increased friction.

Blue and White, which was formed last month in a merger between former military chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and centrist leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, has so far been largely mum on policy specifics ahead of the scheduled release of its campaign platform in the coming days.

Previous reports have indicated the party’s platform will hew to some of Netanyahu’s right-wing stances, including a lack of support for Palestinian statehood.

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Gabi Ashkenazi, visiting the Western Wall during the IDF chief of staff handover ceremony on February 14, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

On social issues however, it will likely break with the government, supporting initiatives blocked by the ultra-Orthodox, such as public transportation on Shabbat.

While Yesh Atid had already released a detailed 200-page manifesto before the merger was announced last month, Israel Resilience declined to publish any clear policy proposals on domestic, security or diplomatic issues.

The Yesh Atid manifesto included a clause saying that the party “would work toward a renewed agreement on the Western Wall plaza so that it will be divided equally between men and women, and to establish a third plaza that will be appropriate for the wide and diverse Israeli and Jewish public.” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid has included a promise to “return the Western Wall deal” in his campaign stump speech.

In Gantz’s maiden political speech in January, he said that he was committed “to the agreement regarding prayers at the Western Wall.” But, has been the case with other policy areas, he did not specify what specific policy he was proposing.

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