The Jerusalem Post
Free the Kotel
fter a month in office, it is time that the new government re-approve the Kotel compromise plan and formally establish an egalitarian plaza at the southern Western Wall. In addition, there is no better time to do it than today, the day that the Jewish people mark the fast of Tisha Be’av.
The reason this is imperative now is due to a series of recent events that have taken place at the temporary prayer platform at the southern section of the Western Wall, which is meant to be reserved for the use of Masorti (Conservative) and Reform groups.
An organization calling itself the Joint Committee for Preserving the Holiness of the Western Wall gave notice last week that it was starting to conduct a series of prayer services and classes at the platform and had set up a mechitzah, or gender-separation divider, in opposition to the egalitarian nature of non-Orthodox prayer services that are held there.
On Thursday night, hardline Orthodox activists interrupted a bar mitzvah ceremony being conducted at the section of the wall used by the Masorti Movement. The activists descended on the site and set up a mechitzah in order to use the area for their own prayer services and Torah lessons while a progressive liberal prayer service was taking place, marking someone’s Bar Mitzvah.
Present at the incident was Shlomo Aviner, a far-right rabbi who heads a yeshiva based in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
While Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai denounced the activities of the activists as “baseless hatred,” government action is required to safeguard and protect the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Western Wall.
A reminder: In January 2016, the government led by current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu approved a plan drafted by then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and then-Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, under which the temporary platform would be upgraded and a special government committee would be established to oversee its management.
Other parts of the plan included the construction of a new entrance to the main Kotel plaza that would also be for the egalitarian prayer platform.
The plan was never implemented and 18 months later, in June 2017, Netanyahu held a vote to reverse it under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
Since then, the plan has been stuck – and as illustrated throughout the past week, it has also been held hostage by right-wing Orthodox political interests.
The government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has declared their desire to repair relations with Diaspora Jewry. One of the first ways to begin that process would be by implementing the plan that would provide a large number of Jews in the United States – who belong to the Reform and Conservative movements – a respectable place for prayer at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
Doing so would also show the extremist groups trying to take control of the southern section of the Western Wall that they do not have a monopoly over Judaism and Jewish life in Israel and that every Jew deserves to have a place to pray the way they want at the Kotel.
What Aviner and his followers did was try to create division among the Jewish people. They are trying to ostracize a significant portion of Jews who live in the Diaspora and to create a single form of Judaism that belongs only to them and those people who practice religion the way they do and the way they say it should be observed.
This government has a unique opportunity to set things straight and recalibrate the way religion is meant to be observed within a democracy, like Israel strives to be. There are no haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties within this government – and based on recent comments made by members of Shas and UTJ, they will not be joining soon.
This provides the Bennett-Lapid government with the opportunity to create a new equilibrium between religion and state in Israel. Now is the time – and there is no better way to start than by creating equality at the Kotel, one of the most powerful symbols for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.