The Israeli government has announced, much to the disappointment of the Jewish diaspora and the non-ultra-Orthodox community, that it has cancelled plans to create a permanent “pluralistic prayer area” at the Western Wall. The plan had been strongly opposed by ultra-Orthodox members of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Now the government risks alienating both the diaspora and many within Israel who had hoped to bring that part of the Western Wall under joint supervision, and allow other liberal Jewish groups to have access to the area.
As this op-ed by Jerusalem Post’s Eran Lerman highlights, there has been near universal condemnation of the prime minister’s reversal of his promise to provide access to the Western Wall: “The government’s decision yesterday to snub, in practice, the non-Orthodox denominations of the Jewish faith, to bar the implementation of the compromise on prayer arrangements in the southern segment of the Western Wall, and to advance legislation on conversions that enshrines the monopoly of the Orthodox (indeed, ultra-Orthodox) establishment has serious and potentially tragic consequences....It threatens the unity of the Jewish People, which the political leadership of Israel should treat as a sacred trust. It is bound to lead to serious clashes, once again, over egalitarian prayer practices, that would not add to Israel’s reputation. And above all, it poses a long-term threat to one of the foundational pillars of Israeli national security: namely, the willingness and ability of American Jewish organizations to stand by Israel in her hours of need, as they did again and again since 1948.”
Registering his disapproval, Yizhar Hess—executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel—opines on the pages of the Yedioth Ahronoth that “the government’s decision on Sunday, a cynical—even vicious—decision, took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world, adding a slap.... Listen carefully, Jews of the diaspora: Not only will you have no share or claim to the Western Wall, but conversion in the Jewish state will be performed exclusively according to the Orthodox Judaism....Sixty-two percent of Israelis are in favor of an egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, and only 9.3 percent—less than the percentage of people identified as ultra-Orthodox in Israel—believe that Conservative and Reform Jews should be forbidden to pray at the Western Wall according to their practice....]There is nothing less Zionist than what the Israeli government did. It proved to its people, and to its enemies, that Israel is no longer the Jewish people’s state. But rather, a state that denies its own people.”
Times of Israel’s David Horovitz suggests that the government’s decision was very much a political one, signaling Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to bend to the wishes of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community: “On Sunday, the prime minister of the world’s only Jewish state made clear to many millions of them: Israel really doesn’t want you.... The prime minister, personally, is no ultra-Orthodox zealot. The prime minister, politically, however, has quite evidently decided that his future depends on keeping the coalition’s two ultra-Orthodox parties happy.... His decision is both short-sighted and fraught with long-term danger. Some critics rushed to call it a divorce from the Diaspora. If it’s not quite that, because the damage is not yet irrevocable, it is certainly the sign of a marriage in deep trouble.... Israel’s Diaspora-savvy prime minister, in capitulating to their narrow-minded demands against his better judgment, showed that survival in office now even takes precedence over the deepest sensibilities of the global Jewish nation he aspires to lead.”
However, there are those, like Globes’s Matti Golan, who don’t believe the decision will have much of an impact in real terms, since, as Golan puts it “it seems that the reason is that Bibi doesn't really believe that his concessions on the Western Wall and conversion will be put into practice. He's probably certain that his decisions will be overturned in one place or another. Most likely it will happen in the High Court of Justice. But it could also happen in the political realm and even from his own political party. There can be no doubt that U.S. Jewry will not remain silent. It knows how to put on the pressure no less effectively than the haredi political parties. And even the haredim are not interested in a crisis with U.S. Jewry because it might also harm them. Put briefly, instead of quarreling with the haredim or infuriating them, Bibi is playing a game. Then he can shrug his shoulders and say I tried but you saw what happened and it just didn't work out.”
Writing for Israel Hayom, Yehuda Shlezinger makes a similar argument: “While the decision to withdraw the plan was certainly dramatic, it is by no means final nor does it signal the birth of the religious state that the haredim envision.... The Reform Jews are angry, but that's just how democracy works. The 736,585 Israeli citizens who voted for Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, and United Torah Judaism, along with a considerable portion of the 984,996 Likud voters, are the ones behind the elected officials who demanded that the Western Wall compromise be revoked. The Reform and Conservative Jews don't have a party, they don't have a structured community, and it's hard to estimate how many of them there are in Israel.... We must not disparage Diaspora Jews -- they have supported us and they wield a great deal of influence -- but this is how democracy works.”
Still, even though Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz does his best to remain hopeful of finding a middle ground, he still can’t hide his real feelings about the government’s decision: “Diaspora Jewry was justified Monday to blast the government after the slap in the face it received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and its decision to freeze the Western Wall deal from 2016 that was supposed to have led to the establishment of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the holy site....The Jewish Agency and the movements have very little support for their cause among Israelis. It is true that polls show that most Israelis support the establishment of a third prayer plaza at the Kotel, but they do not care enough to fight for it and make it an issue that they will consider in the next elections. Israelis don’t yet understand the practical implications of the government’s decision. They need to realize that there is a real possibility Diaspora Jews will cancel trips to Israel, retract donations to Israel and revoke membership in organizations like AIPAC. The Jerusalem Post has long warned that the continued haredi monopoly over religion and state in Israel and the suppression of progressive Judaism will lead to an even wider divide with Diaspora Jewry.”
But Israel Hayom’s Haim Shine questions whether those who live outside of Israel should have any say at all in the matter: “The Western Wall is within the borders of the State of Israel, and therefore an internal Israeli matter. It is the Israeli people's absolute right to decide, via their representatives in the Knesset, what arrangements are made at the holy site.... Any Jew in the world who wants to influence procedures in Israel and Knesset decisions -- on any matter, including religious conversion or matters of religion and state -- is welcome to invoke his or her right of return, immigrate to Israel and vote in the Knesset elections. As long as they choose to live abroad, however, Jews must be humble and refrain from presumptive aggression... regardless of politics, there is room to find a just balance that will allow any Jew to find his or her place in the Western Wall area, where a personal connection can be made.”