The Western Wall prayer controversy: separating fact from fiction
August 11, 2017
Before an Arab terror attack that killed two Israeli policemen ignited the latest wave of tension over the Temple Mount, much of the Jewish world’s attention had focused on an internal Jewish controversy surrounding prayer rights at the adjacent Western Wall.
In June, American Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements as well as other Jewish organizations reacted with outrage to the Israeli government’s decision to cancel the construction of a new egalitarian prayer pavilion at the Western Wall. Yet a mixed-gender prayer facility called “Ezrat Yisrael,” situated in the Robinson’s Arch compound near the Western Wall’s main worship area, remains intact.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris decried the Israeli government’s move as a “setback for Jewish unity.” Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the decision a “slap in the face” to diaspora Jews. Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, charged that Israel deepened “the already accelerating divide between diaspora Jews and Israel.”
The reactions are strong-worded, but what is the reality on the ground regarding Israel’s decision and current prayer rights at the Western Wall?
What Israel’s decision means
The Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian section was founded in 2000 and was significantly upgraded in 2013 under the direction of Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.
The Israeli cabinet approved plans for the creation of additional egalitarian prayer facilities in 2016, in an agreement brokered by Natan Sharansky, chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel. Prior to the cancellation of the 2016 plan this summer, new egalitarian prayer facilities would have been constructed in the Ezrat Yisrael section. Mixed-gender prayer in the existing Ezrat Yisrael space, however, has not been affected.
America’s Reform and Conservative movements have long called for an egalitarian section outside of the Western Wall’s main prayer space, which separates men and women in accordance with Orthodox tradition. Following the Israeli government’s rescinding of the new construction plans, the top institutions of Conservative Judaism issued a joint statement declaring that “the rising influence of an intolerant religious establishment” is “an existential threat to [Israel’s] future.”
Anat Hoffman, director of both the Women of the Wall prayer rights group and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, published a video in early July claiming the Ezrat Yisrael facility is “a second-rate platform for second-rate Jews.”
In the video, which was subsidized by the Reform movement’s Israeli operations, Hoffman appears in a small area of the Ezrat Yisrael section, which was specifically designed so that worshippers can touch the Western Wall without harming an archaeological site beneath the pavilion. The video doesn’t show a full view of the Ezrat Yisrael section, which has sufficient space for dozens of worshippers.
Further, progressive American Jewish groups launched a contentious billboard campaign across Israel, calling on the government to “free the Western Wall” from “haredi control.”
The Israeli haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which form part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said the government’s cancellation of the construction plans reflected “the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall’s sanctity and status.”
Bennett, the diaspora affairs minister, acknowledged that “mistakes were made” with Israel’s decision to freeze the construction plans, but emphasized that the dispute largely resulted from a “campaign of misinformation claiming the [Western Wall] is being closed to diaspora Jews.”
What American rabbis are saying
The Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), which represents some 200 North American rabbis, directly addressed the “misinformation” in a July 16 statement, saying the progressive groups’ billboard campaign in Israel disenfranchised “all traditional Israeli Jews.”
“It doesn’t merely demonize the haredim, it insults all Jews who do not follow Reform’s lead in the abandonment of classical Jewish practice,” CJV said.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JNS.org the Western Wall plan that had been reached in 2016 “included a dramatically enhanced space—open and visible to all with a joint entrance, and a policy and budget oversight committee including leaders from the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall. The space being offered [Ezrat Yisrael] falls far short of even the physical space and is completely unacceptable, violating the letter and spirit of the Israeli government’s historic compromise.”
Echoing Jacobs’s sentiments, Rabbi Eric Gurvis, rabbi emeritus at Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., told JNS.org the cancelled deal would have allowed for greater access for mixed-gender prayer.
“There are places where mixed groups can gather in that plaza, but that new space was meant to be for mixed groups... [with] availability and access for more than just the ultra-Orthodox community,” Gurvis said. “I think it’s mostly a symbolic problem.”
Rabbi Richard A. Block, senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told JNS.org the current egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall is “a small, temporary platform in the vicinity of Robinson’s Arch,” that is “distant from, below and much inferior to the existing, gender-segregated prayer spaces along the wall that are now essentially an outdoor ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”
Block added that the “exhaustively negotiated” agreement that Netanyahu cancelled “would have created a dignified, accessible permanent space for egalitarian prayer that would have been overseen by a committee that included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and two non-Orthodox women.”
Yet the CJV rabbinic group said the current Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian facility, though it is claimed by the progressive American Jewish denominations, is “never” utilized by those movements for its intended purpose.
“[The Conservative and Reform movements] are demanding an ‘equal’ space for political reasons, while falsely claiming that current facilities for their use are inadequate and discriminatory,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.
The CJV’s Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who is also the co-editor of the Orthodox online journal Cross-Currents.com, said the video published by Hoffman and the Reform movement exploits “the fact that most American Jews have not come to Israel to see the truth for themselves.” Opponents of Israel’s Western Wall decision, Menken said, should end their “dishonest” attempt to “divide the Jewish people.”