A proposal to revive the so-called Western Wall compromise, which guarantees a formal role for Reform and Conservative Judaism in the oversight of a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, has been placed on the cabinet agenda and is widely backed in the governing coalition, Nachman Shai, the minister for Diaspora affairs, said Tuesday.
The arrangement, negotiated between Israel and Diaspora leaders over more than three years, was approved by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in 2016, but indefinitely suspended by Netanyahu in 2017, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
In a Times of Israel interview, Shai indicated that the revival of the agreement was imminent: “It’s on the agenda. It’s only a matter of timing,” he said.
Personally, he said, he was urging Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to put it to a vote before he goes to the US in the next few weeks to meet with President Joe Biden in Washington and with US Jewish leaders in New York.
Shai said it would help strengthen Israel’s ties with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the US, something that the current multi-party coalition, which does not include the two ultra-Orthodox parties, has pledged to do.
Shai said Bennett — who in 2013 inaugurated an early iteration of today’s pluralistic prayer area — is on record stating that the Western Wall compromise is “the best solution,” and that it is backed, too, by a ministerial majority including Shai’s Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, Avigdor Liberman, and Gideon Sa’ar.
The minister noted that the 2021-2022 state budget approved by the cabinet on Monday already includes an unprecedented funding allocation for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel — NIS 40 million to encourage “pluralism,” he said.
Allocated to his ministry, the money is intended to boost non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel: “We will find projects, we’ll develop projects, and we’ll encourage different perspectives of Judaism. It’s a precedent. Never been done,” he said.
Backing for the Western Wall Compromise, and the funding for non-Orthodox Judaism, Shai said, reflected a pledge he made to the heads of the three major Jewish denominations: On his first day in the job, he said, “I told them that this is going to be different now, and we are going to be pluralistic… No one [religious stream] will be more important… In this spirit, [there is] no reason whatsoever that Conservative and Reform [Jews] will not be able to pray near the Western Wall like the Orthodox. No reason whatsoever. I can hardly understand why it hasn’t been done so far.”
Reviving the agreement, and thus giving non-Orthodox Judaism formal status in an Israel where the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox maintain a monopoly on life-cycle Jewish events and practice, will also help “address liberal or progressive Jews in America,” many of whom are moving away from support and identification with Israel, he said. It will show “that Israel is open to different opinions and to different views of Judaism as well — not only about the world as a whole, but even about Judaism.”
The eight-party coalition that took office in June marks true political unity, he said, with its right, center, left and Arab components. “So if you have political unity, why can’t we have also a Jewish unity? And the case of the Western Wall is a very significant one.”
Shai, a former senior vice president of the United Jewish Communities (precursor to today’s Jewish Federations of North Africa), was less optimistic on the prospect of the coalition approving civil marriage inside Israel, explaining that there was a majority but not a consensus in the coalition on the issue.
Speaking two days after the mother of Tokyo gold medal-winning gymnast Artem Dolgopyat lamented that he and his fiancée Maria cannot get married here because he is not halachically Jewish, Shai acknowledged: “We have to [do something]. Four hundred thousand Israelis according to the halacha are not Jewish. They serve in the army. They are unfortunately being killed for the State of Israel. They won a gold medal [for Israel].”
He said Labor leader Merav Michaeli intends to try to tackle the issue, “but I’m not sure” this will succeed, “because we still have Orthodox members in this coalition.” There would be a political cost in trying to advance the move: “If we in this way challenge the right-wing members of the coalition, the question is how much we should pay [politically in return]… I always ask myself, how do they feel in Israel, the 400,000… I hope we’ll find a way.”
Returning to the subject of Jewish prayer and the prime minister’s positions, Shai said he believed Bennett’s statement on Tisha B’Av hailing Jewish “worship” on the Temple Mount, when Jews are barred by the government from praying there, may reflect what the prime minister feels “deep in his heart,” but was issued “by mistake,” constituted a “political error” and was swiftly retracted.
“First of all deep in his heart, maybe he believes in [Jewish prayer on the Mount],” said Shai. Issuing the statement “was a political error. He shouldn’t and he cannot sacrifice Israel’s relations with Jordan, first of all… I think it came from his heart. I think it was something he in principle supported… But it came out by mistake. He is now the prime minister of Israel. He is no longer [just] the leader of a six-Knesset member party.”
And, said Shai, the prime minister was no doubt swiftly told, perhaps by the Mossad or the Foreign Ministry or others, “Listen, we have relations with scores of Muslim countries… Change your statement immediately before it’s too late.”
Pressed on the fact that low-key Jewish prayer does appear to be tacitly tolerated by the Israeli security authorities atop the Mount, Shai was adamant: “They are not supposed to pray and they’re not supposed to sing the national anthem there.”
“We should not do anything [to change the status quo] on the mount,” he said. “We shouldn’t touch the mosques. We shouldn’t do anything that will destabilize the situation.”
The wisdom of the Jewish people throughout history, he said, was to find wise compromises. “This is the secret of Jewish existence.”
“With all the pride of having an independent state,” Jewish prayer on the mount must be eschewed if it creates strategic risks, said Shai, who is widely remembered as the voice of national calm when serving as IDF spokesman as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War. “With all the love for the Temple, for this [most] holy place in Jewish history and Judaism, okay so we cannot pray there now. We will one day.
“We haven’t lost hope. We’ve been waiting for this state for two thousand years. We can wait for one day.”
When Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided to allow the Muslim authorities to retain oversight atop the Temple Mount after the 1967 war, “he made the right decision,” said Shai, 74, who recalled reporting on the Six Day War, including the capture of the Old City, for the IDF’s Bamahaneh journal, having just completed his mandatory service in the Nahal Brigade.
“I don’t know how history would have played out: I mean, if thousands of Jews would have prayed on top of the mount in ’67, maybe the Arabs would have accepted it as a fact. But now? Don’t touch the status quo.”
ToI’s full interview with Nachman Shai will be published soon.