Reform movement fumes, Conservatives give cautious welcome

Construction of permanent pluralistic pavilion begins at Western Wall

Although freeze of long-negotiated deal for mixed-gender prayer remains in force, government begins building enlarged space, but without key demands of liberal Jewish groups

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

New construction of a permanent pluralistic prayer platform in the Davidson Archaeological Park at the Western Wall, February 5, 2018. (The Masorti Movement in Israel)
New construction of a permanent pluralistic prayer platform in the Davidson Archaeological Park at the Western Wall, February 5, 2018. (The Masorti Movement in Israel)

Workers on Thursday began construction of a long-delayed and controversial permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, in a move that met a mixed reaction, even from the egalitarian space’s biggest proponents.

Workers could be seen erecting scaffolding next to large sacks of building supplies in the Robinson’s Arch area near the existing temporary prayer platform it is meant to replace.

The original government decision to build the pavilion dates back to January 31, 2016,  when the Israeli government — spurred by decades of high-profile activism by the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group — approved the so-called Western Wall compromise. Painstakingly negotiated since 2012 with leaders of liberal Judaism and other prominent figures, this provided for the construction of a permanent pluralistic area. Other key aspects of the plan included a single entrance shared with the Orthodox sex-segregated prayer pavilion, and the establishment of a board of pluralistic Jewry to oversee the mixed-gender area.

But on June 25, 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the 2016 compromise. While killing off the joint entrance and pluralistic governing board, however, he vowed to continue with construction of a permanent platform.

“In June 2017 the Prime Minister ordered construction to be expedited of the new plaza. What we are seeing now is the implementation of that order,” an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said on Monday.

Monday’s start of construction was cautiously welcomed by the Israeli Masorti movement — the local Conservative Movement — which oversees the existing pluralistic platform and holds twice-weekly prayer there.

Head of the Masorti movement Dr. Yizhar Hess said that while the movement objects to the June 25 freeze of the other key sections of the plan, “there is also importance to the physical parts of the outline that we have agreed upon, and I hope they at least will be completed.”

The Masorti movement emphasized in a press release that it was not privy to the scope of the construction.

New construction of a permanent pluralistic prayer platform in the Davidson Archaeological Park at the Western Wall, February 5, 2018. (The Masorti Movement in Israel)

“We still won’t be able to consecrate the finished product, but we can certainly welcome something, and I am not downplaying that,” said Hess.

In contrast, the Reform Movement condemned the government for pushing ahead with the construction without consulting any of the other parties involved.

“The state has started work on the section without coordination and without informing us what will be built. We only found out about the construction by chance,” a Reform spokesperson told the Times of Israel.

The Jewish Agency said in response, “We continue to maintain that the plan presented by Chairman [Natan] Sharansky and adopted by the government after extensive talks with all relevant parties remains the most reasonable, equitable, and workable solution, which will ensure that the Western Wall remains, in the Prime Minister’s words, ‘one Wall for one people.'”

Earlier this week, Israeli broadcaster Kan had reported that the Israel Antiquities Authority began overseeing preparation work for the permanent prayer platform in the southern portion of the Wall.

The IAA would not respond to queries, referring questions to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Likewise, Women of the Wall told The Times of Israel on Monday, “Our only statement is that we’re waiting for the High Court’s decision.” Petitions on a variety of issues relating to the Western Wall from several bodies, including the Women of the Wall and Israel Reform Action Center (IRAC), both headed by Anat Hoffman, have been joined together by the High Court. Among these issues is the legality of the June 25 freeze.

A March 2016 view of the mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although back in 2016 the initial plan was warmly embraced by liberal and Diaspora Jewry, it was immediately met with controversy as Israeli ultra-Orthodox politicians stepped into the fray and vowed to stop it.

As a result, Diaspora Jewry took up the cause of the pluralistic platform, which has become a point of increased friction between Israel and world Jewry. The ongoing saga quickly reached the High Court, which has held countless hearings on the matter since.

The plan would create a unified, 9,700-square-foot prayer space that touches the Western Wall at a narrow point in the southwest corner and broadens as it extends backward. The prayer space would touch a 31-foot segment (9.5 meters) of the wall. This picture also shows what the section’s entrance will look like: a wide staircase and flat walkway leading to the prayer space. (JTA)

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. It is the holiest place where Jews can pray because of its proximity to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism, which is administered by the Muslim Waqf and houses Islam’s third-holiest site, al-Aqsa mosque, and the Dome of the Rock.

The pluralistic pavilion is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park in 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 Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

If completed, the new permanent pavilion will greatly enlarge the modest prayer deck which has served liberal Jewry since 2000. Likewise it will replace the larger temporary bleacher-like platform that was put up by Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett ahead of the High Holy Days in 2013.

What exactly was the plan and how did it go awry?

Upon the passage of the January 2016 government decision to move forward with the pluralistic platform, the Women of the Wall released a statement to international media, proclaiming, “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 ignored or silenced.”

Police escort Anat Hoffman holding a Torah scroll from the Western Wall, on July 12, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Much of the impetus of the plan was the plight of the Women of the Wall, whose colorful arrests for attempting to pray or read from the Torah at the Western Wall had captured the attention of international media. This new “pro-woman” plan would also decriminalize women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which was previously theoretically punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of NIS 500.

In addition to being a “victory for women,” the plan was seen as an official recognition of liberal Jewry. The day after its announcement, a jubilant Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, told The Times of Israel, “Clearly there’s more than one authentic way to be a Jewish person, and the State of Israel is built on that, but it hasn’t always lived up to it. Today it is echoing in our communities… in Kansas and in Oregon, that the State of Israel knows they are there. Symbolically this is something that shifts how we think about ourselves, how we think about the state.”

The compromise was long in coming: In 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit to negotiate a compromise between liberal Jewry, the Women of the Wall, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, headed by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch.

On January 31, 2016, the government passed the decision that mandated an enlarged permanent prayer platform, which would be easily accessible 24 hours a day and visible from the Western Wall plaza. The existent temporary prayer platform would double in size to allow for up to 1,200 worshipers.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, and other progressive Jews clashing with security guards in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/via JTA)

There was to be a joint committee overseeing the southern site, made up of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman, and six government officials. As part of the compromise, the “mainstream” Orthodox pavilion would be continued to be administered by Rabinovitch.

The government’s 2016-17 budget set aside NIS 35 million (almost $9 million) for the plan. 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.

The compromise soon faced criticism by ultra-Orthodox politicians, who threatened to pull their support from the Netanyahu government over its planned implementation.

Head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky fights for a ‘strengthened connection between world Jewry and Israel’ at a July 6, 2016, demonstration in support of the conversions of New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. (Ezra Landau)

In 2016, at a press conference in Los Angeles, a prescient Sharansky put the issue into perspective, saying, “I personally believe… that the biggest challenge for the Jewish people… our biggest internal problem is how not to become two different people.” The Western Wall, said Sharansky, is merely “the most visual example of the problem.”

“Why is the Kotel such a big problem? It is the number one religious site, and the number one national site. There is no place in the world which is at the same time  the number one religious site, the closest place to God, and number one national site which includes all our history, from King David through the Six Day War,” said Sharansky.

By the government freeze in June 25, 2017, the compromise had stagnated for 17 months, to the growing frustration of all involved. In pressing pause on the plan, Netanyahu supports said in June that it was actually being given new life.

“The symbolic piece was holding the practical piece hostage,” an anonymous government official told JTA. “What was frozen yesterday was the symbolic part. The practical part of advancing the prayer arrangements, that can now move forward.”

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