Seven years have elapsed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a burst of good faith, assured Conservative and Reform Jews that a permanent pluralistic prayer space would be established alongside the gender-separated prayer spaces at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Lamentably enough, he has yet to fulfill that promise.
Netanyahu’s predecessors, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, are equally at fault here. Like Netanyahu, they pledged to grant official status to the egalitarian section under the provisions of the 2016 Western Wall compromise agreement, but reneged.
As widely predicted, they caved in to Orthodox pressure and left the status quo dangling, disappointing and infuriating non-Orthodox Jews and underscoring the fact that religious liberty in Israel is shockingly limited, as the Women of the Wall organization and the Reform movement have repeatedly pointed out.
Ironically, Israel may be the only country in the civilized world where restrictions on Conservative and Reform Jews are placed.
Netanyahu’s far right-wing coalition government is extremely unlikely to change with the times. Indeed, one of its members recently submitted a bill to ban mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall altogether.
Being a secular Jew himself, Netanyahu removed the proposed bill from his government’s legislative agenda and let it be known that he was working to improve the egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
At present, lacking any formal state recognition of its status, the egalitarian space is technically under the authority of the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz. Yet it is allowed to operate outside the purview of the Orthodox rabbinate, which vehemently opposes the very idea of egalitarian prayer.
The current situation satisfies no one.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in particular, are livid. Last summer, several dozen haredi men and boys entered the egalitarian section and, blowing whistles, holding aloft offensive signs and shouting “Nazis” and “animals,” disrupted the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies of several boys from the United States.
A week after this ugly incident, the then prime minister, Yair Lapid, denounced the disruption and declared, “This cannot continue.”
By chance, the U.S. envoy on antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, happened to be in Jerusalem on that day. “Let us make not mistake,” she said. “Had such a hateful incident happened in any other country, there would have been little hesitation in labelling it antisemitism.”
Shortly afterward, four major organizations — the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Haysod — called on Lapid to take action.
As they put it, “We respectfully feel that immediate actions should be taken to ensure the safety, security and well-being of all those who come to the (Western Wall) … Words of support are not enough.”
In response to their plea, police were deployed to guard the egalitarian section, but significantly enough, the governments of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid took no tangible steps to implement the 2016 agreement, which was brokered, in part, by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Refusenik.
Bennett, an Orthodox Jew who had once hailed the accord, said he could not implement it due to the lack of a consensus on the issue. “Not all our dreams will come true in this government,” he said pathetically.
He may well have been reacting to comments issued by his colleague, Idit Silman, who subsequently left the government and joined forces with Netanyahu, setting into motion the collapse of Lapid’s government in 2022.
Dismissing the compromise agreement, Silman said, “There is a status quo with the Western Wall that I don’t think is going to change. All of the attention around this is just demagoguery. There’s a minority — a Reform minority — that is making a lot of noise as though it’s the majority. We need to say the truth: That’s not the case.”
“This government, or at least I, need to preserve the Orthodox character of the Western Wall,” she added.
Responding to Silman’s blast, the Reform movement denounced her remarks: “The Western Wall compromise represents a suitable solution that a addresses the needs of everyone who wishes to pray at the Western Wall. The Netanyahu government approved the outline, but withdrew it due to pressure from extremists. The current government (is) committed to the solution of compromise. Therefore, we expect that there will be no surrender to extremist voices, and that the government will work to make (the Western Wall) an open and respectful place of prayer for every Jew.”
Regrettably, this has not happened, and the 2016 agreement remains frozen and irrelevant.
In an extraordinary development, the United States, Israel’s chief ally, has intervened on behalf of Reform and Conservative Jews. Two days ago, the U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain, visited the Western Wall and called on the government to implement the agreement.
Two years ago, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, a Reform Jew, visited the Western Wall in an implicit gesture of support for the agreement.
Needless to say, it should be implemented without further delay.
Failure to do so will be a tacit admission by Israel that extremism prevails, that the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are inferior, and that non-Orthodox Jews are second-class Jews.
Self-respecting Jews in the Diaspora cannot and should not support such an extreme and insensitive government.