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Coalition whip rejects Western Wall deal, says site needs its ‘Orthodox character’

MK Idit Silman’s remarks against compromise that would grant progressive movements greater representation at the Kotel spark criticism from Reform, Conservative Jews

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs hold Torah scrolls at the Western Wall complex on March 4, 2022. (Rick Jacobs/Twitter)
Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs hold Torah scrolls at the Western Wall complex on March 4, 2022. (Rick Jacobs/Twitter)

A top member of the coalition on Sunday came out firmly against the so-called Western Wall compromise, a deal that would grant additional freedoms to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism at the Jerusalem holy site.

Coalition whip Idit Silman, of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, dismissed the proposal, which has recently seen a measure of renewed interest after having been stalled since 2016.

“There’s a status quo with the Western Wall that I don’t think is going to change. All of the attention around this is just demagoguery. This is a house of prayer. There’s a minority — a Reform minority — that is making a lot of noise as though it’s the majority. We need to say the truth: That’s not the case,” Silman said in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.

“This government and certainly us — or at least I — need to preserve the Orthodox character of the Western Wall,” she added.

The Western Wall compromise was initially agreed upon by the government in 2016 but then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly abandoned it months later due to opposition from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who had earlier agreed to it. Under the deal, the main plaza at the site would remain divided between men’s and women’s sections, and the women’s side would not be permitted to hold readings from a Torah scroll. However, a separate egalitarian plaza, where men and women could pray together and anyone could read from a Torah scroll, would be expanded and a council would be formed to manage the Western Wall that would include representatives from the Reform and Masorti movements. The Masorti movement is the Israeli equivalent of the American Conservative movement.

American Jewish officials have charged that Netanyahu’s abandonment of the agreement, and the current Israeli government’s continued refusal to implement it, is straining the relationship between the State of Israel and American Jews, particularly liberal ones.

Silman’s remarks on Sunday sparked a flurry of condemnations from progressive Jewish movements and officials.

Coalition Chair Idit Silman speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, Blue and White party MK Alon Tal, a member of the Masorti movement who has been deeply involved in the current negotiations over the Western Wall, said he believed Silman misspoke or misunderstood the issue.

“The agreement leaves the present [Western Wall] plaza as an Orthodox space. That’s the compromise,” Tal told The Times of Israel.

Thus, he said, the Western Wall compromise would not change what Silman described as the site’s “Orthodox character.” While there would be a change to the management authority of the Western Wall, the setup and the practices at the plaza itself would not be altered. The only physical alterations would be to the existing egalitarian prayer space, in an area known as the Robinson’s Arch, which would get a “facelift,” he said.

“I don’t have an issue with what she said,” Tal said, though he added that he planned to discuss the matter personally with Silman, whom he described as a “good friend and partner.”

Tal, who attended a meeting between Bennett and the heads of progressive streams of Judaism last month that was widely described as positive and faith-building, said he remained optimistic about the premier’s promise to renovate the Robinson’s Arch site, which has fallen into disrepair, regardless of the status of the full Western Wall compromise.

“I believe he will do what is necessary to change reality,” Tal said.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism from North America and Israel stand outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem before a meeting on February 28, 2022. (Reform Movement in Israel)

Though the Western Wall compromise has largely stalled due to opposition within the government, its passage is part of the coalition agreement between the Labor party and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

As whip, Silman is tasked with keeping members of the ruling coalition on board with the government’s agenda. Though a Knesset vote would likely not be necessary to approve most aspects of the Western Wall compromise — save for an amendment to one law — her opposition to the proposal more significantly demonstrates the ideological fault lines within the current government, which includes both right-wing and left-wing parties.

“Idit Silman’s comments are very disappointing. This is not just one lousy comment; rather, it is a view that demonstrates a lack of enlightenment,” Yizhar Hess, the former CEO of the Masorti movement and current vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, told The Times of Israel.

Hess noted that the current government, as part of its coalition terms with the Islamist Ra’am party, agreed to considerable concessions to the country’s Arab population. “But for the Jewish people she can’t show the same cooperation, the same generosity? In any case, I await clarification from Prime Minister Bennett. I hope that the things Silman said were not his opinion,” he said.

In a statement, the Masorti movement accused Silman of “caving to extremists voices in the opposition” by speaking out against the Western Wall compromise, and called her remarks “very troubling.”

The Reform Movement in Israel similarly denounced Silman’s comments.

“The Western Wall compromise represents a suitable solution that addresses the needs of everyone who wishes to pray at the Western Wall. The Netanyahu government approved the outline but withdrew it due to pressure from extremists. The current government has stated and committed to the solutions of compromise. Therefore, we expect that there will be no surrender to the extremist voices and that the government will work to make the Kotel an open and respectful place of prayer for every Jew,“ the movement said in a statement.

Former Knesset member Tehila Friedman, a leading voice in Israel on religion-state issues, warned that while indefinitely postponing the implementation of the Western Wall agreement would placate ultra-Orthodox leaders, who would otherwise lead massive protests against it, doing so came at the price of alienating American Jewry, most of which identifies with progressive streams of Judaism and egalitarian prayer.

“This is a mistake, in my eyes. The relationship with American Jews is important and of strategic importance to Israel, even if they are not important electorally,” she wrote in a tweet.

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