PM to Diaspora Jews: Do not publicly protest Orthodox stalemate at Western Wall
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PM to Diaspora Jews: Do not publicly protest Orthodox stalemate at Western Wall

‘The last thing we need now is more friction,’ Netanyahu says, a day before activists plan ‘unprecedented act of civil disobedience’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)

Addressing some 200 Jewish Diaspora leaders in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Monday against vocal protests opposing the status quo on worship at the Western Wall, and argued that a solution that would satisfy non-Orthodox Jews is more likely to be achieved through quiet negotiations.

“We are one people and we have one Wall. Yes, it’s our Wall. And we have problems with the Wall now, but we’re working on it. The less we work on it publicly, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution,” he told the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, which is currently convening in Israel.

Netanyahu’s comments were likely geared toward the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Women of the Wall, a group fighting for the right to hold egalitarian prayer services at the site, which are planning a series of events Wednesday to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo at the site.

In particular, these groups are protesting the non-implementation of a compromise, passed in a January 31 cabinet decision, calling for a permanent prayer platform to be built along the southern end of the Western Wall in an area of the Davidson Archaeological Park, otherwise known as Robinson’s Arch. There is currently a temporary prayer platform set up there in two distinct areas of the park.

The Western Wall plan was heralded as a symbol of “Jewish unity” throughout most of the Jewish Diaspora. But within days of its jubilant announcement the cabinet decision drew the ire of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s tenuous coalition who view the Western Wall pavilion as an open-air Orthodox synagogue. Its implementation has been stymied ever since. In March, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, reportedly said the Western Wall plan “is over.”

“The last thing we need now to resolve this sensitive issue — while the world is saying that we have nothing, no patrimony there, at a place that has been our spiritual center for over 3,000 years — the last thing we need now is more friction,” the prime minister said Tuesday, referring to two UNESCO resolutions that ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

An illustration of Natan Sharansky's proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson's Arch area. (photo credit: Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)
An illustration of Natan Sharansky’s proposal, which will expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. (Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)

Women of the Wall and the leaders of America’s largest non-Orthodox streams have planned an “unprecedented act of civil disobedience” to take place in Jerusalem early Wednesday morning.

“Representing world Jewry, the march will be led by a line of ten Jewish leaders, including Women of the Wall Chair Anat Hoffman, carrying Torah scrolls, demanding to pray as equals at the Wall,” Women of the Wall said in a statement.

“We anticipate that the sight of hundreds of Jews prevented from reaching the Western Wall will move the prime minister to action,” Hoffman said. “He is a hairbreadth away from an historic solution to the conflict at the Western Wall. It boggles the mind that Mr. Netanyahu, who decries any international attempt to delegitimize our historic ties to the Western Wall stands between world Jewry and an equitable arrangement guaranteeing every Jew the right to pray freely.”

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

In addition to the Women of the Wall event, the Reform and Conservative movements plan a “march” to the site and a pluralistic service there, which is liable to spark vociferous protest by Orthodox worshipers.

Speaking to the Jewish leaders in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall on Monday, Netanyahu did not mention Women of the Wall or any other group, but declared that any loud protest over the issue “will make a solution more difficult, not less.”

He added: “Sometimes things require patience and tolerance. I’ve been dealing with this now for over 20 years. I can tell you I have patience and tolerance, and I hope you do, too.”

At the same event, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein thanked the Jewish Agency Board of Governors for their “constructive input” and thanked them voicing their “legitimate concerns,” which he promised are taken seriously by the Israeli government.

“But,” he added, “public petitions abroad do not help achieve a solution. Instead, they fuel protests here, which only makes a resolution more difficult.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)

Edelstein called on the Jewish leaders to “a new, different way of working through and settling these difficult issues” as a family. “A way that recognizes and respects our differences, while not expecting anyone to change his most personal feelings. So it is not helpful to criticize Israelis for adhering to Orthodox Judaism. And it does not help Israelis to critique Jews abroad for being Reform or Conservative. When we do so, we only weaken the bonds between us.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky lamented that “there are people in this house [the Knesset] who deny big parts of our Jewish community the place near the Kotel. That is cause for frustration.”

Like no other Israeli politician, Netanyahu is acutely aware of the problematic status quo, Sharansky said, lauding the prime minister for having initiated the negotiations that led to the Wall compromise several years ago, and for having personally contributed to their successful completion.

“But — until it’s implemented it’s not implemented,” he said. While he tells critics to be patient and that it is preferable to “be quiet” about their anger, “time is running out.”

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Movement), who also addressed the Jewish leaders, chose not confront Netanyahu over the non-implementation of the Western Wall deal.

Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)
Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (credit: Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)

“There is no difference between me and the prime minister. There is a national consensus on the need to meet the demands of the Jewish Diaspora,” he said. “However, because of political constraints we need to find a solutions in an amicable way as soon as possible, before the Kotel becomes a center of feud and pain and aggression, which does not befit the Jewish people at all and only creates further disunity.”

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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