Egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is finally in sight after a historic compromise. But implementing it will be more difficult than expected—and will likely force a heartbreaking decision for progressive Diaspora Jews.
On January 31, the Israeli government decided to create a permanent section for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This elicited much jubilation from Conservative and Reform Jews, especially in the United States, where the two denominations are far more popular than they are in Israel: their traditions would finally be given “dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement,” as a joint statement by the two movements and the Jewish Federations of North America said. The plan indeed marks a historic watershed in relations between Israel and the Diaspora. Whether it will be easy to implement, however, is another question. There are already ominous indications that it might not—not because of any lack of will on the part of the Israeli government or global Jewry, but because of the explosive tendency of Palestinian nationalism to seize on any changes at the holiest site in Judaism as an assault on Muslim holy sites, and to use them as an excuse to foment violence.
How progressive Jewry chooses to engage in the coming struggle could have a profound impact on its relationship with the Jewish state.
Under the proposal, a permanent 9,700-square-foot mixed-gender section will be established at the archaeological park on the southern end of the Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch. The entrance to the area will be revamped, creating a single, unified entrance for the three sections: Men’s, women’s, and mixed. The decision comes after a decades-long campaign by the feminist organization Women of the Wall, which advocates for women’s rights to read from the Torah, sing out loud, and wear a tallit and phylacteries in the women’s section. As such, the new plan constitutes a compromise between the existing ultra-Orthodox monopoly over the site and the aspirations of progressive streams of Judaism, providing them official recognition at the holy site.
Supporters of the plan, however, should not let their optimism temper their realism. To bring the plan to fruition, the Israeli government may be able to overcome opposition within Israel, whether from Haredim or archaeologists. But the broader geopolitical context surrounding the Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem is a much bigger problem. This aspect to the story is currently at most on the margins of progressive Jewry’s discussion of the project, but it is unlikely to remain there for long.
This is because Israel is presently enduring another wave of Palestinian violence, this time in the form of daily, uncoordinated stabbing attacks. And this wave of terrorism was ignited in large part by propaganda that claimed Israel is forcibly changing the status quo on the Mount, permitting Jews to pray there and thus endangering the al-Aqsa Mosque—a potent symbol in the Arab and Muslim worlds. There is no basis to the pretext that Israel plans to change the status quo on the Mount. But what will happen if Israel goes ahead with plans to change the status quo next to the Temple Mount, through a large-scale infrastructure project at its foothills?
We can already see the opposition mounting. The Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs, Youssef Ideiss, has called the plan “another Israeli attempt to change the status quo at the Temple Mount” and “Judaize” a “holy Islamic site.” The Jews, he declared, have “no connection whatsoever” to the “structures, yards, walls, and gates” of the al-Aqsa Mosque—including the Western Wall. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, has described the area as “property of the Islamic Waqf” and slammed the plans for an egalitarian section as a “brutal attack on the Waqf and additional evidence of the Israeli aggression against Muslim holy places.” Nobody conscious of the history of violence provoked by such statements should take this lightly.
Only last year, the Palestinians submitted a resolution to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, declaring the Western Wall—the single part of the compound surrounding the ancient Jewish Temple complex that has been a shrine for Jewish prayer for centuries—as an “integral part” of the al-Aqsa compound, because the Prophet Muhammad is said to have tied his horse to the Wall before he ascended to heaven. That the Palestinian Authority could attempt again to declare unilateral ownership of the Western Wall is not farfetched—it is the continuation of its current rhetoric. This makes a quiet acceptance of a change to the status quo at the Wall extremely unlikely.
Should the Palestinian Authority pursue a serious political campaign against the egalitarian section, it could cause Israel no small amount of grief. Israel has hardly won much sympathy by allowing access to other Jewish holy sites on land the international community considers occupied, such as in Hebron. In 2014, UNESCO expressed its “growing concern regarding the continuous, intrusive demolitions, and illegal excavations in and around the Mughrabi Gate Ascent,” referring to the exact area planned for the new egalitarian section. Given the Arab bloc’s predominance in the UN cultural body, Israel is unlikely to find much favor with an agency that still anachronistically calls the Western Wall plaza the “Mughrabi Quarter.”
It is almost unthinkable, moreover, that the works could be completed without provoking a violent backlash. The Holy Land has a long and sorry history of Arab violence sparked by fears that construction in the vicinity of the Temple Mount poses a direct and malicious threat to the Muslim holy sites atop the Mount.
One of the triggers of the infamous Arab riots of 1928-1929, in which hundreds of Jews were massacred in Jerusalem, Hebron, and elsewhere, was the absurd claim disseminated by the Mufti of Jerusalem that the new mechitza—a dividing screen between men’s and women’s sections—at the site constituted a Zionist plot to take over al-Aqsa. Indeed, the riots are known in Arabic as Thawrat al-Buraq, the “Wall Uprising.”
More recently, in 1996, the opening of a new exit from the Western Wall tunnels sparked a mini-intifada of its own. The tunnels run along the entire western wall of the Temple Mount. When the first Netanyahu government opened the exit at its northern tip, inside the Muslim Quarter, fabricated claims by the Islamic Movement that Israel was digging under, rather than alongside, the Mount caused mass riots, leading to the deaths of dozens.
Fears of Arab violence have long delayed overdue repair works on the Mughrabi Gate Ascent – the rickety wooden walkway that provides the only access to the Mount for non-Muslims. Work undertaken when the old walkway partially collapsed inflamed the Muslim world due to allegations that Israel was literally undermining the mosque itself.
Now imagine the phalanx of diggers and heavy machinery undertaking work a literal stone’s throw away from the al-Aqsa Mosque, touching the retaining wall of the Temple Mount itself. If belligerent characters are looking for evidence to convince millions of people around the Muslim world that Israel intends to demolish al-Aqsa and build a Jewish Temple in its stead—as they reliably have in the past—a few images of heavy construction equipment in the shadow of the mosque will be more than enough.
Where does this leave Conservative and Reform Jews?
When Arab opposition to the plan gathers steam, the Israeli government will face international pressure to delay implementation in order to calm tensions. Facing internal opposition from the ultra-Orthodox as well, shelving the plan may prove politically expedient. Progressive Jews in the U.S. could then find themselves in a fascinating and disquieting place: In the name of civil rights and religious pluralism in a foreign state, they may be called on to defend a right-wing Israeli government’s controversial construction project against international opposition.
The strong tradition of progressive politics in American Jewish life could find itself challenged by this paradox. On the one hand, the construction of an egalitarian section constitutes a major step forward for non-Orthodox Judaism. It is the fruit of a feminist campaign of civil disobedience and a substantial contribution towards religious freedom and pluralism in Israel. These are progressive Jews’ pet causes. But to realize these goals, it will be necessary to support what many will call “illegal construction in occupied East Jerusalem.”
After all, the Western Wall was in the part of Jerusalem conquered by Israeli forces from Jordan in 1967, and although Israel extended civil authority to all of Jerusalem immediately thereafter, virtually the entire world still sees it as occupied territory, and any building done there as a form of settlement activity. By signing on to this proposal, many progressive Jews may find some of their most cherished beliefs crashing into each other, in the most public way possible.
This could make progressive Jews extremely uncomfortable. The fissure between these two tendencies may well create a fissure within American Jewry itself.
Over half of American Jews are affiliated with the Reform or Conservative movements. With 88 percent of Conservative and 71 percent of Reform Jews considering themselves very or somewhat attached to Israel, according to a Pew study, it is clearly important to many that the Jewish state value and accommodate their religious practice. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has said that the plan for an egalitarian section “gives us hope that if we can live our Jewish spiritual diversity at the holiest of places. We can and will, one day soon, make the entire State of Israel a place of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect.” At the same time, these denominations are generally more critical of Israeli security policies than their Orthodox counterparts.
At the moment, the progressive approach to religion coexists coherently with a dovish approach to foreign policy. But what will happen when a contradiction emerges between the two, because supporting religious pluralism will require defiance of criticism of Israeli policy in contested territory?
Israel, for its part, hopes that American Jews’ commitment to religious pluralism will prevail over their critical attitude toward Israeli security policies. Indeed, the plan for an egalitarian section can be understood as a conscious attempt to overcome the strategic threat posed to the Jewish state by the growing alienation of American Jewry. Writer Daniel Gordis sees it in the context of a broader Israeli attempt to “mend some fences” with American Jewry, arguing, “The Israeli government has learned that, if it wants American Jewish support, it has to earn it.” Ben Sales, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Israel correspondent, stated that this represents a “concrete achievement” with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can demonstrate “that he’s listening to [American Jews’] concerns—and acting on them.”
The decision to build an egalitarian section at the Wall should be seen as a rebuke to those who see Israel as liberal American Jews’ embarrassing conservative cousin. It will stand alongside Israel’s strong record on LGBT rights as an example of Israel’s progressive values, easing the cognitive dissonance for those who feel emotionally attached to Israel and simultaneously wedded to the principles of progressivism. For those who view Israel as unenlightened and regressive, the plan offers a tangible refutation.
If Arab opposition to the section intensifies, however, many will seek to exploit the issue to drive a wedge between American Jewry and Israel. One can easily imagine the next U.S. president asking Israel to postpone its plans if they attract concerted Arab opposition, leaving liberal Jews facing the dilemma of whether to side with the Israeli government in a face-off against their own government. In fact, they will have to encourage Israel to defy American pressure if they want to see their dream of a religiously pluralistic Israel realized. That this would be an agonizing dilemma gives one enough reason to presume that hostile forces will try to engineer it.
Should the Palestinians raise concerted objections to the egalitarian section, Reform and Conservative leaders will find themselves in the unexpected company of the campaigners for Jewish prayer rights atop the Temple Mount itself. Yehuda Glick, the leader of this movement, also describes his struggle in terms of freedom and civil rights, just like these campaigners for women’s prayer rights at the Wall. But the Reform movement, which normally fights for equality and freedom of worship, is hardly a cheerleader for the Temple Mount movement. On February 25, after a celebratory service at the temporary plaza, journalist Amit Segal raised precisely this irony with Rabbi Ada Zavidov on Army Radio. Why, he asked, did she insist on the right of non-Orthodox women’s prayer at the Wall but not the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount itself?
“Even if there is a right, it’s a question of whether you need to realize every right,” she answered. “I think you know the answer. This is likely to cause, and has caused, bitterness and a risk of escalation in Jerusalem and our entire area. Is this what we really need?” Yet this is precisely the threat that potentially looms over the egalitarian section too. In the eyes of Palestinian nationalists, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Yehuda Glick are one.
What will happen if Reform Jews, like religious-nationalist Jews, are also threatened with Arab violence for trying to advance religious freedom for Jews at their holiest site? Will they stand their ground and insist on the vindication of their civil rights? Or will they, too, retreat in the face of a threat of escalation? The question “is this what we really need?” is likely to be thrown back in their faces.
Progressive American Jews may not want a fight over the egalitarian section at the Western Wall, especially one that is not, as they expected, with their ultra-Orthodox counterparts, but with the Palestinians and the international community. But they are very likely to get one, and ought to be ready for it—in particular, because of what it would mean for their own Jewish identity.
Arab opposition to an egalitarian section at the Wall represents a continuation of a longstanding and deliberate campaign to alienate Jews from their cultural heritage. The Palestinian public rejects the historic existence of a Jewish Temple on the site as a Zionist myth. Indeed, the proposition that the Jews have an ancient connection to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem that predates the birth of Islam and the Arab conquests is subversive to the central pillar of Palestinian nationalism: The claim that Jews are foreign colonialists in the Land of Israel, rather than an indigenous people returning to their homeland.
For progressive Jews to defy Palestinian supersessionism would be a powerful statement of Zionism expressed as a vindication of the rights of the Jewish people to their own cultural patrimony, for the sake of cultural and religious renewal. The importance of this should not be underestimated at a time when young Jews are increasingly drifting away from Israel and questioning the very purpose of Zionism. Defense of the egalitarian section would be an assertion that Israeli sovereignty in the Holy Land is key to defending religious pluralism, advancing civil rights, and celebrating diversity. It gives American Jews, who feel they do not need a “refuge” from anti-Semitism, a stake in the Zionist project.
In other words, the Israeli government has given progressive Jews a way to interpret Zionism as a liberal cause célèbre, and an opportunity to unite American and Israeli Jewry around the same narrative. Instead of demanding change from Israel, American Jewry would find itself demanding change from an international community that refuses to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Old City and its Jewish holy sites.
If Diaspora Jews are genuinely concerned for civil rights in Israel, they must seize this opportunity. The creation of an egalitarian section at the Wall is a very concrete and symbolically potent challenge to the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly over Jewish life in Israel. Attempts to challenge the Rabbinate’s monopoly on life cycle events and kosher certification will be set back if this high-visibility challenge to the existing order is rolled back. And should the cause of religious pluralism in Israel suffer a major blow, Israel is going to look less and less like a country that non-Orthodox Jews can call home. The gulf between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, already a cause of major concern, would only widen.
In Israel, nothing happens without the persistent application of sharp elbows—and this is especially true of controversial policies that face daunting opposition. In the case of the egalitarian section at the Western Wall, Diaspora Jews have used those sharp elbows. They cannot afford to stop now. The future of Diaspora-Israeli relations depends on it.
Banner Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90