Why is Israel again abandoning the Solomonic wisdom of the Western Wall compromise?

A coalition avowedly committed to advancing consensual issues is, deplorably, instead capitulating to extremists over access for the Jewish people to our holiest place for prayer

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Members of the Ugandan-Jewish Abuyudaya community in Israel on a Birthright trip organized by MAROM participate in a ceremony celebrating the dedication of a new Torah scroll at the Western Wall's pluralistic prayer pavilion, August 27, 2018. (Courtesy MAROM)
Members of the Ugandan-Jewish Abuyudaya community in Israel on a Birthright trip organized by MAROM participate in a ceremony celebrating the dedication of a new Torah scroll at the Western Wall's pluralistic prayer pavilion, August 27, 2018. (Courtesy MAROM)

During years of sincere and painstaking negotiations spearheaded by then-Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky, culminating in a 2016 agreement approved by the Israeli cabinet under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli and Diaspora leaders worked out an arrangement for access and prayer at the Western Wall that would meet the needs of all streams of Judaism.

Blessedly, they were assisted in their endeavors by the fact that there’s actually quite a lot of the Second Temple retaining wall at which to pray.

Thus, the so-called “Western Wall compromise” was able to leave undisturbed the current gender-separated prayer areas at what most of the Jewish world thinks of when it pictures the Western Wall, while providing for a formal pluralistic prayer area at the Wall just a short distance further south, on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge that leads up to the sacred Temple Mount.

A fairly rudimentary facility for pluralistic prayer had already been established there in 2013, by then Jerusalem affairs minister Naftali Bennett; under the compromise, the space was to be expanded, and representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were to be given an official joint role in its oversight — arguably their first formal role in what might be crudely termed the management of Judaism in the Jewish state, breaching the Orthodox monopoly.

Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013. (Ezra Landau/Flash90)

But a year after the compromise agreement was approved, by a coalition that included Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, the same government, in a bombshell move on the very day that the Jewish Agency’s board of governors was convening in Jerusalem, announced that it had “suspended” the deal — a polite way of saying it was scrapped.

The compromise arrangement, Israel’s Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana recalled in a Times of Israel interview early last month, had been “accepted by all the relevant players, including the ultra-Orthodox, including the rabbis.” It was, Kahana observed sadly, “a very extremist group, not ultra-Orthodox,” that destroyed it in 2017. “They opposed it, so the ultra-Orthodox had to fall into line.” The freezing of that agreement, Kahana lamented, “was a major breach [in our ties] with US Jews.”

When Israel’s wildly improbable new coalition government took office in June, however, with eight ideologically diverse parties but no ultra-Orthodox component, the suspended Western Wall compromise was back on the table. In their coalition agreement, indeed, the parties specified that they were committed to advancing the deal “that was canceled by the Netanyahu government.”

The now-frozen plan for the pluralistic section, shaded in blue, was for it to double in size to nearly 10,000 sq. ft (929 sq m). The Orthodox section, shaded in purple, takes up some 21,500 sq. ft. (nearly 2,000 sq. m.). The area in back of the Orthodox section is meant for national ceremonies. (JTA)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor), told The Times of Israel in August that the reinstatement of the Western Wall compromise was “on the cabinet agenda,” underlined that it enjoyed clear majority support among ministers, and noted that Bennett, now prime minister, was on record calling it “the best solution.”

Minister Kahana, an Orthodox Jew and a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, weighed in with similar sentiments in our November 9 interview: “We need to look again at [reviving] that arrangement, which was widely agreed upon, and stop all these conflicts [at the Western Wall],” he told us. “Let’s return to the arrangement that everyone agreed upon.” Added Kahana: “The rabbi of the Western Wall has no problem with it. I’m in constant contact with him. He won’t be an obstacle.”

Then-minister of health Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party (right) and then-interior minister Aryeh Deri of Shas (left) flank the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, during a visit to the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, for his part, called the Western Wall compromise “the right thing to do from the religious point of view, and also for everything connected to our relationship with the Diaspora.” He indicated at a November 8 Knesset meeting of his Yesh Atid party that he aimed to see it reinstated within weeks.

Despite all this rhetorical support, however, it has become evident in the past few days that the new government is abandoning its own pledge to revive the agreement.

Bennett has been complaining in recent weeks that his government’s opponents are doing their best to politicize the issue of prayer and access at the Western Wall, raising “a lot of money” for the cause, and seeking to undermine the coalition. Apparently intimidated by that effort, Bennett and colleagues including Kahana have now decided to maintain the “suspension” of the Western Wall compromise deal and perhaps give up on it altogether.

“We have decided to not deal with this now, period,” Kahana reportedly told aides over the weekend. “We’re freezing everything at the moment. We’re not touching it.”

A few days earlier, in an interview on Kan TV (Hebrew), Kahana had hinted at the imminent about-face: “The vast majority of the Jews in Israel are Orthodox Jews and therefore I don’t think it’s right to give over control of parts of the Western Wall to streams that don’t represent the vast majority of Jews in Israel,” Kahana said, in a statement that was both incorrect and an unforgivable abrogation of Israel’s responsibilities as the self-declared homeland of the Jewish people worldwide.

Confirming the reverse, Lapid said at a Yesh Atid meeting on Monday: “I support the [Western Wall] compromise, but not everything can be done at once.” He added: “We have four years [to govern], during which we will advance many great things.”

Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police as members of the Women of the Wall movement hold prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

By way of explanation, Kahana is said to have privately elaborated that “the Western Wall compromise has become a focus for incitement and hatred, especially by people from Likud, who are latching onto it. We cannot play into their hands.”

In truth, however, it is the freezing and continued suspension of the carefully constructed deal, and not the deal itself, that is playing into the hands of provocateurs. In abandoning the Western Wall arrangement, a government avowedly committed to the advancement of consensual issues is giving up on a solution all streams of Judaism had recognized and endorsed as viable, and caving to those who are cynically utilizing the holiest place for Jewish prayer to stir up intra-Jewish conflict.

Worshipers pray close to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City, during Sukkot, September 23, 2021. In the background is the Mughrabi Bridge. Beyond it, out of shot, is the pluralistic prayer pavilion. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“We must end the disagreements surrounding the Western Wall, without giving over control of any kind to denominations that represent a very small minority of Jews [in Israel],” Kahana said in his Kan TV interview.

Instead, his government is surrendering control at the Western Wall to extremists and political manipulators. And that capitulation is not going to end any disagreements or heal any intra-Jewish rifts. Rather, it discredits the government, and exacerbates the conflict over the holiest place where Jews can pray.

The Western Wall compromise was veritably Solomonic, fashioned and accepted by people from across all streams of Judaism genuinely concerned for the faith and the faithful, and opposed only by those with narrower, self-interested goals. The new Israeli coalition, deplorably, is again choosing to set aside its wisdom.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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