Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Wednesday said to be considering a proposal by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky to establish an egalitarian prayer plaza along part of the Western Wall.
The proposal has reportedly been approved in principle by the government, ultra-Orthodox authorities, the Women of the Wall and leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US. However, Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs said Wednesday the “extremely ambitious” proposal could take years to implement — “if ever” — and she was still concerned “with what will happen tomorrow.”
The group will hold its monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall on Thursday morning, she noted, and the expected 150-200 participants were still liable to be arrested. She told Israel Radio that Women of the Wall was campaigning among Knesset members to reverse the legal amendment under which women are barred from reading from the Torah or donning prayer shawls at the holy site.
Sharansky, who was tasked by Netanyahu to find a resolution to the conflict between those who want to pray in a nontraditional manner at the Wall versus those who oppose it, is said to want to designate the area currently known as Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian services, to rename it as part of the Western Wall, to change it from a paid-entry tourism area to an open prayer site, and to directly connect it to the main Western Wall plaza.
Sharansky told Ynet News on Wednesday that the plan had been presented “to the government ministers, to the leaders of the Jewish movements in the US, to the Western Wall rabbi, and each of them have their own reservations but they all understand that the situation in which the Western Wall is a place of conflict and dispute must end and that it must be rebuilt as a uniting place. In this move we are providing a possibility to recreate agreement and a wide common denominator around the Western Wall.”
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said that while the new prayer area “does not match” his worldview, he supports the idea of “one site of prayer” and said that the ultra-Orthodox community “can live with this solution.” The Western Wall “has to unite the Jewish people,” he told Israel Radio on Wednesday. “It belongs to all the Jewish people… I’m seeking solutions that everyone can live with.”
If the proposal “is accepted by everyone,” if it proves feasible from archaeological, security and all other perspectives, and if it essentially moves the disputed prayer arrangements away from the area that is today designated as the Western Wall, Rabinowitz said, that would be acceptable to him. “If not,” he added, “then what have we achieved?”
On Tuesday, the Women of the Wall offered support for the plan. Sharansky’s proposal was “a wonderful message for Israelis, for Jews from abroad, for everyone,” the group’s leader Anat Hoffman said, praising him for thinking outside of the box and looking for a real solution.
Hoffman, whose group has led the struggle to open the Western Wall to nontraditional prayer, spoke to the Forward hours after Sharansky presented to American Jewish leaders part of his proposal to resolve the dispute.
The idea is “very ambitious,” Hoffman said, and represented a compromise, even it wasn’t what the group had been hoping for. “You don’t always have to be right, you have to be smart — and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here,” Hoffman said.
But Sachs on Wednesday sounded markedly less upbeat, worrying that the Sharansky solution would not be practicable in the short term while also noting that the group hadn’t seen Sharansky’s final specific suggestions, “although we were consulted” as the proposal was being prepared.
In a statement, the Jewish Agency said Sharansky hoped the proposal would “decrease the heightened tensions at the Western Wall.”
“One Western Wall for one Jewish people,” Sharansky said in the statement.
Hoffman expressed concern over what could happen before the idea is implemented, alluding to last week’s statements by Jerusalem’s police commissioner Yossi Pariente, who warned women against saying the traditional mourner’s prayer (the Kaddish). A women reciting Kaddish could be arrested, the officer explained.
Wall rabbi Rabinowitz said in contrast that women would not be arrested for saying Kaddish — after MK Alisa Lavie (Yesh Atid) intervened — but on Tuesday Pariente stated once again the Jerusalem police would enforce the law.
It was not a question of agreements between the sides involved, but of a court order that needed to be upheld, he said.
Sharansky’s suggested enlarged prayer section would be equal in size to the current men’s and women’s sections, the Forward reported on Tuesday.
As part of a previous compromise, Robinson’s Arch is open at certain times for egalitarian prayer, but it is inside an archaeological site and a fee is charged for entrance. The new proposed area would be open at all times without a fee and be essentially an extension of the the main prayer section at the Wall.
Israel Radio reported on Wednesday that the plan would involve changing the official name of the Robinson’s Arch area, named after early 19th century American biblical scholar Edward Robinson.
Sharansky stressed that the plan, which would involve renovation work in a politically and religiously sensitive site, would, in order to “not spark a conflict” with the Muslim world, not “touch one stone” of the Mughrabi bridge, which connects to the Temple Mount plaza and is adjacent to both the current Jewish prayer area at the Wall and to Robinson’s Arch.
The question of women’s and nontraditional prayer at the Western Wall is a divisive issue in the relationship between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, especially in America, where most Jews follow Reform or Conservative egalitarian practice. That’s currently forbidden at the Western Wall, which largely functions as an open-air Orthodox synagogue.
Western Wall regulations dictate that women cannot wear tallitot, or prayer shawls, in the same manner as men, as it contravenes the “local custom” determined by the Wall’s chief rabbi. In 2003, the High Court of Justice upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin (phylacteries) or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.