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'They haven't done anything except add two sunshades'

Reform, Conservative leaders grumble over government inaction on Western Wall deal

Heads of non-Orthodox movements meet with cabinet secretary for update, after PM promised to improve egalitarian prayer space

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

A view from the entrance of the Robinson's Arch prayer platforms, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
A view from the entrance of the Robinson's Arch prayer platforms, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Heads of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel said they were disappointed by the near-total lack of progress on the prime minister’s promises to improve the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, following a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo on Monday.

“In some ways, there weren’t just no steps forward, we went back further. This is greatly disappointing,” said Yizhar Hess, the former CEO of the Masorti movement and current vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

The meeting was attended by leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and of Women of the Wall, an organization that fights for greater gender equality at the Western Wall.

“The government has not advanced things that we believe it could have, even with its coalition difficulties. It’s a big waste, which is very disappointing,” Hess told The Times of Israel after the meeting.

“It’s very disappointing to come in and hear that nothing has happened,” Anna Kislanski, the head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Kislanski’s and Hess’s comments marked a near 180-degree reversal from the remarks that came following a similar meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year, which all of those involved described as being overwhelmingly positive and warm.

During that meeting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made clear to the Reform and Conservative leaders — from Israel and the United States — that the Western Wall compromise would likely remain frozen for the foreseeable future, primarily due to a lack of consensus on the issue within the government, making it impossible to pass the legislation necessary to fully implement the deal. However, Bennett agreed to take a number of concrete steps to at least improve the egalitarian prayer space located at the southern portion of the wall, known as Robinson’s Arch.

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)

Bennett agreed to designate funding to better support the site — as it is generally not maintained by the government, unlike the main esplanade of the Western Wall — and to put in place better security in order to prevent ultra-Orthodox activists from overrunning the site during egalitarian prayer services as they have in the past.

Attendees of Monday’s meeting with Shlomo said there has been no movement on either matter. According to Kislanski, neither of these promises has been kept.

“They haven’t done anything except add two sunshades,” she said.

“They can’t even prevent ultra-Orthodox extremists from coming into our space and interrupting our prayers at the southern Western Wall. They come in, they see that we’re praying there, and they forcibly install mehitzot and hold segregated prayer services,” Kislanski said, using the Hebrew term for partitions used to separate men from women in Orthodox synagogues.

Hess said he recognized that the government’s general instability and current struggles prevent the implementation of the compromise, which would have given non-Orthodox streams of Judaism representation on a management council for the Western Wall and additional funding for the Robinson’s Arch prayer space.

“So the government can’t implement the full compromise — okay. There are other basic things that they could do,” he said.

For example, Hess said, the government could repair the balconies that make up the egalitarian prayer space and allow the one next to the Western Wall to be reopened.

Prayer services at the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“For three years, we haven’t been able to touch the Western Wall [from the egalitarian prayer space]. There’s no access to the Western Wall from there because the balcony is blocked. It’s called the ‘egalitarian Western Wall,’ but there’s no Western Wall!” he said.

Hess said that despite the “disappointment and frustration” with the situation, he bore no grudge against the cabinet secretary.

“They tried to give explanations and say that they did some things. They’re good people. It was all in good spirit, everything was polite,” he said.

Kislanski noted the return of tourists — including non-Orthodox Jews — to Israel as the country has fully reopened its borders, following two years of limitations because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Tourism and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies [at the egalitarian prayer space] are restarting,” she said.

Hess, who despite no longer officially leading Israel’s Conservative movement remains deeply involved in these issues, warned that the government’s “foot-dragging” on the Western Wall would have a negative effect on Israel’s ties to the Diaspora.

“This is a government that we had a lot of hope for, and that I still have a lot of hopes for. If this kind of government doesn’t know how to do something about the rift between Israel and the Diaspora, what kind of government will? That’s a tough conclusion, and that’s why it’s so disappointing,” Hess said.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the meeting.

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