'You betrayed us,' says head of Conservative movement

Israel insists it won’t fully implement Western Wall egalitarian prayer deal

Addressing Jewish Agency at pluralistic prayer platform, Tzachi Hanegbi vows to improve the site’s appearance but rejects Diaspora Jewry’s key demands

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi addresses the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the 'Ezrat Yisrael' prayer platform at the Western Wall, October 30, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Minister Tzachi Hanegbi addresses the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the 'Ezrat Yisrael' prayer platform at the Western Wall, October 30, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The government will not fully implement the agreement for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told senior leaders of Diaspora Jewry on Monday.

Hanegbi faced considerable anger from the gathered leaders over the government’s suspension in June of an agreement that would have guaranteed the permanence of, and made significant upgrades to, the egalitarian prayer platform adjacent to the main plaza at the holy side.

In a bid to calm them, he promised changes to the visual appearance of the pluralistic site. However, he made plain that the government is not going to build a common entranceway to be shared by the Wall’s various areas, as had been agreed to by the government and Jewish organizations.

“It is true that the entrance is not going to be mutual,” Hanegbi told the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency during a field visit to the area of the holy site known as Robinson’s Arch.

“I don’t think that the Jewish people for 3,500 years prayed for an entrance. We didn’t pray for an entrance — that’s not a big deal,” he said.

Stairs leading to the pluralistic Robinson’s Arch prayer platform among the ruins of the Davidson’s Archaeological Park at the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Hanegbi, the government’s point man for the Western Wall controversy, said that his son celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Wall’s main plaza, adding that he himself felt bad about his wife and mother being far away.

“So I understand your frustration,” he said, standing at the hastily erected egalitarian platform disparagingly referred to by many Jewish leaders as “the sundeck.”

Diaspora leaders and representatives of non-Orthodox streams reacted with frustration to Hanegbi’s position, decrying the government’s “betrayal” and vowing to continue fighting for recognition.

The government has allocated NIS 17 million ($4.8 million) to improve the site, Hangebi said, adding that he agreed that conditions at the pluralistic prayer platform need to be improved.

Slippery, waterlogged stairs to the temporary egalitarian prayer platform, built in 2013 in Jerusalem’s Old City Davidson Archeology Park, as seen on April 12, 2016. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

According to the January 2016 agreement, which the cabinet approved after four years of negotiations, a common entrance would be created for all three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the so-called “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together.

In June, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend part of it, notably including the plan to build a common entrance, which was seen as a form of recognizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and the provision for shared oversight of the pluralistic prayer pavilion, including by representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The platform for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (courtesy)

“While a formal decision of the government wasn’t possible, the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] is determined to continue advancing the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and is working toward that goal,” Hanegbi said.

“I recognize and appreciate that suspending the Kotel arrangement created a perception among some that Israel no longer welcomes and appreciates all Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israel is a place for all Jews. That is true whether you wear a shtreimel, a knit kippa, a sheitel or nothing on your head at all.”

The Jewish leaders were unimpressed.

“While it was important that the members of the Board of Governors had the opportunity to hear from Minister Hanegbi as a representative of the government, we have seen no progress on any of these issues since the government’s regrettable decision in June, and no directions toward progress were evident today,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said.

“What was frozen four months ago remains frozen. We nevertheless remain committed to the principle originally articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu: one Wall for one people.”

The leaders of US non-Orthodox movement were less diplomatic.

“You betrayed us,” charged Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says the group's $5 million deficit over the past two years stems mainly from three one-time expenditures. (Courtesy of USCJ via JTA)
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (Courtesy of USCJ via JTA)

“There’s simply no excuse for a government that makes a promise, that passes that promise in its cabinet and then rescinds on that promise for purely political reasons.”

Merely improving the looks of the current pluralistic platform, as Hanegbi had promised, was insufficient, Wernick said, insisting the government recognize the non-Orthodox streams by building one common gate to the various prayer plazas.

“One wall for one people means one entryway.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said it was a “strategic mistake to delegitimize the majority of Jews in the world.”

Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)

After Hanegbi said that the government would have fallen if Netanyahu had not suspended the agreement, Jacobs acknowledged Netanyahu’s coalition constraints.

“It is certainly understandable, but it is wrong,” Jacobs said. “And it cannot be tolerated, and it will not be tolerated.”

Diaspora Jews and non-Orthodox streams in Israel insist on the government making good on its promise in the near future, Jacobs maintained.

“The division that we’re feeling right now is tearing apart the Jewish people. The prime minister can tell us that [the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations] is already passing and we’re now in a very calm place — we’re not.”

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