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ToI investigates'I hear the promises, but I don't hear a schedule'

Will the Western Wall compromise deal ever be realized?

With mixed messages from the government and a Supreme Court dragging its feet, the status quo of monthly scuffles at the holy site appears to have no end in sight

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

  • Women of the Wall activist Lesley Sachs clutches a Torah scroll while sitting on the floor amid protest at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
    Women of the Wall activist Lesley Sachs clutches a Torah scroll while sitting on the floor amid protest at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
  • Women of the Wall executive director Yochi Rappeport holds a Torah scroll during the group's monthly prayer services at the Western Wall. (Courtesy)
    Women of the Wall executive director Yochi Rappeport holds a Torah scroll during the group's monthly prayer services at the Western Wall. (Courtesy)
  • The egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall, known as 'Robinson's Arch' or 'Ezrat Yisrael,' seen on December 30, 2021 in Jerusalem's Old City. (Amy Spiro)
    The egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall, known as 'Robinson's Arch' or 'Ezrat Yisrael,' seen on December 30, 2021 in Jerusalem's Old City. (Amy Spiro)
  • Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (left) and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch attend a ceremony on Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
    Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (left) and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch attend a ceremony on Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
  • The blocked-off platform that abuts the stones of the Western Wall at the egalitarian plaza seen on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)
    The blocked-off platform that abuts the stones of the Western Wall at the egalitarian plaza seen on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)
  • 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)
    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)

Just over half a year into Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government, huge shakeups on issues of religion and state are in the works.

But those who had pinned their hopes on this government to move forward with a long-frozen plan to expand and enshrine egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall are still playing a waiting game, receiving mixed messages from government ministers and prolonging a status quo that seems to leave nobody happy.

Is there a path forward for the Western Wall compromise plan, which has been sitting on the shelf for more than four years? And as the government makes significant progress on reforming conversion and kosher certification – why is this issue such a sticking point?

“What annoys me the most, honestly, is that [members of the government] are so afraid. Even though the Haredim don’t sit in the coalition, they’re so afraid of their bullying, by them threatening to demonstrate,” said Yochi Rappeport, the executive director of Women of the Wall. “It’s like giving a prize to the bullies, instead of the women who have been fighting for 33 years now.”

While multiple coalition agreements signed by the parties in the current government promised to revive the compromise plan — agreed to by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016 and then shelved in 2017 — the issue remains, at best, on the back burner of the current government. Meanwhile, the monthly prayer services of the Women of the Wall group are consistently beset by ultra-Orthodox protesters and decried by the rabbi of the Western Wall.

Just where does the government stand on the issue?

A view of the egalitarian plaza, often referred to as ‘Robinson’s Arch,’ at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)

In its response last month to an ongoing Supreme Court case on the matter, the state said that Bennett intends to continue the policy put in place in 2017 to “renovate and improve” the egalitarian prayer area adjacent to the Western Wall — often referred to as Robinson’s Arch or Ezrat Yisrael — “as soon as possible.”

The state also requested an additional six months to update the court on its activities in the area, and noted that Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo has been instructed to “renew the dialogue with the relevant parties connected to the issue.” While the court can attempt to pressure the state, it seems unlikely to take drastic action in a case that has dragged on for years, especially with a relatively new government in place.

Meanwhile, Women of the Wall, an organization founded in 1988 to advocate for women’s prayer rights, says the government’s response is inadequate and lacks any sort of timeline.

“We all know that Robinson’s Arch should and needs to be renovated,” said Rappeport. “So the response is ‘Okay, we’re going to renovate something.’ But what? And when exactly is this going to happen?”

Women of the Wall executive director Yochi Rappeport holds a Torah scroll during the group’s monthly prayer services at the Western Wall. (Courtesy)

Rappeport said she and other Women of the Wall officials, as well as representatives of progressive Jewish groups in Israel, took part in recent meetings with Shlomo and President Isaac Herzog but were given little in the way of concrete plans.

“I hear the promises, but I don’t hear a schedule. And that’s not only disappointing, it also needs to be a reminder for us that the Kotel agreement is a compromise,” she said, using the Hebrew word for Western Wall. “Women of the Wall never wanted this. Women of the Wall wanted and still want to pray freely at the women’s section, to be able to read Torah.”

A spokesman for Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana declined to respond to a request for comment on the issue, saying that the matter was no longer “in our court,” and was being handled by the cabinet secretary.

In November, Kahana told The Times of Israel that he believed the government should try “to return, as far as is possible, to what was agreed in 2016.” A few weeks later he appeared to walk that back, saying: “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.”

Last month, the minister was said to tell aides that the issue was being dropped completely from the government agenda. And in an interview with the Maariv newspaper in late December, Kahana said he “opposes changing the current prayer customs at the plazas that exist today,” and that “the government of Israel is not officially dealing with the Western Wall compromise plan in any way.”

Bennett — who was responsible for the hasty construction of the egalitarian plaza while he served as Diaspora minister in 2013 — has shied away from publicly weighing in on the issue for some time. In a November Facebook post, the prime minister decried those using the Western Wall for a political campaign “with the goal of slamming the government.”

The egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall, known as ‘Robinson’s Arch’ or ‘Ezrat Yisrael,’ on December 30, 2021 in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Amy Spiro)

So while reform in kosher certification is already being rolled out, and issues of conversion are being worked on, egalitarian prayer at Judaism’s biggest pilgrimage site appears to be a red line.

“I think this is the biggest issue, the issue that thousands and thousands of people may take to the streets about,” said Shlomit Ravitzki Tur-Paz, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, of the issue’s lightning rod nature within the ultra-Orthodox world.

“The absurd thing is that the things that are moving with conversion reform are really big, and this Kotel issue is actually a very, very small movement. It’s a very small change.”

Shifting plans

The original 2016 plan — agreed to by Netanyahu and a range of progressive Jewish groups, including Women of the Wall, after months of complex negotiations — would have seen the Women of the Wall agree to stop holding prayer services at the main area of the Western Wall. Instead, under the terms of the deal, the existing egalitarian prayer plaza would be completely renovated and extended to a size that is 70% of the current men’s section. Entrance to the Western Wall would be divided into three sections: men’s, women’s and egalitarian, giving equal access and weight to all three. The egalitarian plaza would be administered by a council that includes representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall as well as government officials.

The egalitarian plaza is situated south of the main Western Wall plaza, on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge. Visitors who enter the Old City via Dung Gate can access the site via a staircase situated outside the security checkpoint through which one must pass to visit the main plaza.

A year after the plan was agreed to, Netanyahu backed out of the deal amid intense Haredi pressure, effectively freezing it. And without any deal in place or progress toward an agreement, the same scenario plays out at the Western Wall almost every month: To mark each Rosh Hodesh, the start of the Jewish month, members of Women of the Wall hold prayer services with a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall and are almost always pushed, shoved and attacked by ultra-Orthodox protesters, with scuffles often descending into greater violence.

“If you’re not going to implement the Kotel agreement, we’ll continue to fight toward our initial goal, which is reading Torah at the women’s section,” said Rappeport.

Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the group Women of the Wall holding their Rosh Hodesh, or new month prayer at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Western Wall security guards and police officers do little to stop the violence and disorder that mark each monthly prayer service, claims Rappeport. Members of the group are regularly pinched and kicked and shoved by protesters, who tend to be ultra-Orthodox teenagers. At one service six months ago, she said, “39 siddurim [prayer books] were torn… where are the police? Where are the security guards? They did nothing.”

The Western Wall Plaza marks a sort of semi-autonomous region within Jerusalem, where one man sets the laws and rules of the area, and police are loath to intervene. That man is Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, appointed in 2000 to a lifetime term as rabbi of the Western Wall and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

Rabinovitch escorts virtually every visiting dignitary, foreign leader, head of state – and even the pope – on their visits to the wall. And as chief custodian of the holy site, he mandates that “local custom” be enforced at the site, which to him means women may not pray with a Torah scroll or wear a tallit or tefillin.

In 2013, however, the Women of the Wall won a major legal victory when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that “local custom” could not be interpreted as strictly Orthodox, and the women’s activities were allowed. Rabinovitch, in turn, ruled that no Torah scrolls could be brought into the Western Wall Plaza at all, leaving the women with no scroll to use for their monthly prayers unless they attempt to smuggle one inside.

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (left) and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch attend a ceremony on Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Rabinovitch declined to sit down for an interview with The Times of Israel or to talk via phone, but he agreed to answer questions via email.

The rabbi said he has “used every platform” to “warn against the danger of transforming the Western Wall into a ‘city square’ that is home to protests of all sorts.” He said that the holy site of the wall is “not the place to conduct political struggles.”

Rabinovitch made his disapproval of the 2016 compromise deal well known. Today, he told The Times of Israel, he is “in contact with all the relevant authorities about the various issues connected to the Western Wall,” and has made his position known “in the relevant forums.”

The rabbi stated that government officials “fully understand the importance and sensitivity of the place,” and share in his “aspirations and efforts to find the right way to balance between the various and complex sensitivities, expectations and constraints regarding the Western Wall.”

Prayer or protest

Rappeport says Rabinovitch has repeatedly refused to meet her or any other representative of Women of the Wall. Rabinovitch declined to answer questions about why he would not meet with the group. The bottom line is that the rabbi maintains that the activities of the Women of the Wall are a protest, while the women say they are simply trying to hold a prayer service.

The ongoing monthly scuffles have continued unabated. And then came an escalation on Rosh Hodesh Kislev in November.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv hands a Torah to Women of the Wall activists on October 7, 2021. (Gilad Kariv/Twitter)

For a couple of months, Labor MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv — the former head of Israel’s Reform Movement — utilized his parliamentary immunity to bring a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall’s prayer service. Upon hearing that he was slated to do so again in early November, Shas leader Aryeh Deri issued a call for the public to join him and “dozens of members of Knesset… so that God forbid this holy place will not be desecrated.”

Deri’s tweet was shared by none other than Netanyahu, and police and government officials alike were concerned that the situation would devolve into anarchy.

“I was terrified,” said Rappeport. “Not by what’s going to happen to me, but what might happen to one of the gap year students who might join us, one of our preparatory school students… honestly I was frightened.”

Ultimately, Herzog intervened and appealed for calm from all involved, asking Kariv not to show up, leading to the Haredi MKs backing out as well. In the end, the only MK to appear was rabble-rousing Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Rabinovitch warned against “the consequences of members of Knesset appearing at the Western Wall during such protests.” While he was asked about the specific actions of both Kariv and Deri, Rabinovitch condemned only Kariv by name, but criticized all “other MKs” who had indicated they would show up at the prayer service.

Out of reach

Coupled with the government’s parade of mixed messages, the situation at the egalitarian plaza remains unclear. Several months ago, the wooden floorboards at the site were replaced with new ones. Rappeport said she welcomed the move, but said it was not coordinated with the Women of the Wall or any of the progressive religious groups, and it was not clear who had ordered it.

The blocked-off platform that abuts the stones of the Western Wall at the egalitarian plaza seen on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)

A spokeswoman for Rabinovitch said he plays no role in the activities at the egalitarian plaza. A request for comment from the Company for the Development of the Jewish Quarter, which oversees the plaza, went unanswered. The Masorti Movement in Israel oversees Torah scrolls and prayer books and arranges lifecycle services at the plaza, but does not control the actual grounds.

While the floor of the main plaza was upgraded, the section of the platform that abuts the stones of the Western Wall is still off-limits for visitors more than three years after a boulder dislodged from the wall and crash-landed there.

“It took them three years to renovate [the floors], and yet, you still cannot go down to the porch, so you can’t touch the stones [of the Western Wall],” said Rappeport. “There’s no physical way to touch the stones.”

Currently, the entrance to the egalitarian plaza is easy to miss, marked by just a small sign, and the platform is accessible via a long stone staircase and down a narrow walkway.

The small sign marking the entrance to the egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro)

Women of the Wall say that without any action on the compromise deal or upgrades to the egalitarian plaza, they will not give up their right to pray at the main section of the Western Wall. And ultra-Orthodox activists have repeatedly swarmed egalitarian prayer services at Robinson’s Arch, including on Tisha B’av last year, the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.

Even those deeply involved in activism surrounding egalitarian prayer rights at the Western Wall acknowledge that it’s not a consensus issue — or one particularly important to most Israelis. But it is one that touches a nerve in Israel-Diaspora relations. The issue has been one of particular concern among American Jewish leaders, the majority of whom identify as Reform or Conservative.

“On our live stream on Rosh Hodesh we have thousands of people watching, who stay up to watch our service, Australia, South Africa, North America, South America, Europe, worldwide,” said Rappeport. “Unfortunately, because they’re so disappointed [by] the government, I’m afraid that they don’t believe anything [will happen] anymore.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Times of Israel last month that pushing for the compromise deal to move forward is still at the top of his agenda.

“The Jewish Diaspora is interested to see this change, and they deserve to see this change,” Shai told a gathering on Saturday. “There is no reason that every Jew in the world cannot come to the Western Wall and pray, each in their own way.”

Last month, Shai told a meeting of the Knesset Lobby to Strengthen Diaspora Jews that “we have enough external enemies and internal disagreements – the Western Wall does not need to be one of them.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People’s Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The IDI’s Ravitzki Tur-Paz suggested that a shift, even a minor one, was necessary to reflect the changing society.

“I think that the State of Israel will stay with the Orthodox voice as the main voice of the state and of its institutions — but with giving a lot of room to different identities that come from Israel and from the Diaspora that must be listened to,” she said.

“If there is nobody in the state listening, wishing to hear, wishing to understand,” a deep “hostility” will only intensify between Israel and Diaspora Jews, and “the damage will be so big.”

Rappeport said she feared that the longer things remain stalled, the further Diaspora Jews would be driven away from Israel.

“We’re talking about the next generation now — if they don’t feel like they have what to come for, why would they want to be a part [of things]? And this is the reason that [former] prime minister Netanyahu even offered a compromise, because he understood that this is a strategic threat to Israel, that North American Jews want the Kotel, they want a place at the Kotel.”

“I really am afraid of what’s going to happen with Diaspora Jews if they don’t see anything happening soon,” she added. “And not in two years. Now.”

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