Israeli Government Undermines Plans for New Prayer Space

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Friends,

For some months now, I have been concerned by the Israeli goverment’s plans to move Women of the Wall and egalitarian minyanim away from the Kotel and Kotel Plaza to an area called Robinson’s Arch. Though technically part of the Western Wall (the retaining wall of the Second Temple), Robinson’s Arch not only is an active archaeological site, it also is separated and distanced from the Kotel – the site that Jews and non-Jews throughout the world equate with the historical Jewish connection to the Second Temple and Second Commonwealth.

I was equally concerned that Women of the Wall, which had fought for the right to pray freely in the Women’s Section of the Kotel for 25 years, was being co-opted by agreeing to the move. Not only did that mean giving up its quarter-century of advocacy for the rights of women to pray there, it discouraged and frustrated many traditionally observant members of WOW who want to pray strictly with other women and not in mixed-gender groups. And that has led to unprecedented fractures in this formerly united and strong group of women of faith

Unfortunately, my concerns and fears have proved to be justified. At the same time the Israeli government was negotiating with WOW and the Reform and Conservative movements through Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky on this egalitarian space, it was conducting separate, secret negotiations with a right-wing pro-settler group called ELAD – City of David Foundation, to take management control over the entire southern section of the Western Wall, including Robinson’s Arch.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Elad is heavily involved in settling Jews in Palestinian homes purchased in Silwan through front men and foreign companies.” That is, it espouses a right-wing political agenda to displace Arab residents of Old Jerusalem. Thus, not only does this action by the Netanyahu government undermine all the progress that non-Orthodox prayer groups thought they’d been making – but, perhaps more importantly, it gives the appearance that WOW and its partners have been complicit in this right-wing agenda rather than being victimized by it.

WOW Chair Anat Hoffman was rightly angry in the message she shot to Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Avichai Mendelblit:

“We have paid a high price – both personal and organization -for even our willingness to negotiate with the government over moving our prayer out of the women’s section, the area where we struggled for 25 years. We are committed to respectful and respected women’s prayer at the Western Wall and we do not see a way to pursue this under these conditions.”

All of us who have supported WOW over the years, including the constitutent arms of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US and its parallel Progressive and Masorti cousins in Israel, must clearly and strongly condemn this subterfuge by the Netanyahu government and demand that control over the Robinson’s Arch area be placed in the hands of those who will use it and those who will protect it – and out of the hands who those who utilize it as a cover for their political agenda.

At the same time, perhaps it’s also time we also create a parallel track and go back to the beginning – and to supporting WOW and all women who wish to pray freely, communally and vocally in the women’s section of the Kotel. After all, an Israeli court has already ruled that it is their (our) right to do so, and that the so-called prevalent ‘customs’ of the Kotel area are not to be construed as purely ultra-Orthodox. It is time now to break the stranglehold of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the Kotel as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, and make it truly a place that unifies Jews from around the world rather than separating them.

In my opinion, all the Robinson’s Arch negotiation did was serve the Haredi interests in controlling the Kotel and stifling women’s voices and womens’ rights. That is not something that we of Klal Yisrael can accept.

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