To a leader of the Reform movement, a bill introduced this week in the Knesset is “draconian and unthinkable.” A leader of the Conservative movement said it threatens “an actual rupture between the diaspora and Israel.” And another described it as a “strategic threat to the very basic notion of a Jewish state.”
Known as the Kotel Bill, it would dramatically change the women’s prayer service that has been conducted for 27 years at the Kotel, or Western Wall, by the group Women of the Wall. Prayer shawls and tefillin many of the participants now wear would be prohibited. Also barred would be egalitarian services, the reading from a Torah scroll, blowing the shofar, holding a ceremony “not based on local practice and that offends the community of worshippers at the site,” playing musical instruments and singing without permission of the authorities. Violators would be subject to a sentence of up to six months in jail or a $2,500 fine.
The bill is just the latest fight over the issue of religious pluralism and the right of the ultra-Orthodox to control religious life for Jews in Israel on everything from marriage to conversions and funding for religious institutions.
One of those particularly incensed by the bill is Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who led the lengthy negotiations that resulted in a compromise solution that was approved 15-5 by the Israeli government Jan. 31. It called for the creation of an expanded egalitarian section of the wall near Robinson’s Arch, the current site of the women’s services, which would be administered by a pluralistic committee. It also solidified charedi Orthodox control over the traditional Orthodox section of the wall.
“This bill makes a mockery of all the efforts made by recent governments to ensure that the Western Wall is a place that unites, rather than divides, the Jewish people,” he said in a statement.
He told The Jewish Week Tuesday that “there is very little chance will pass — it contradicts positions of many in the coalition. … I don’t think they have the votes [to get it approved], but the very fact these ideas are circulated [is troubling].”
But Anat Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall, said she is not as confident the bill will be rejected.
“It stands a chance,” she told The Jewish Week. “I would assess its chances at 50-50.”
Hoffman said she was particularly upset that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said nothing about the proposed measure.
“In the past, Netanyahu was able to stop members of his own party from voting for a bill,” she said, noting that three of the 16 Knesset members who introduced this bill on Monday are members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party.
Hoffman also questioned how such a law could ever be implemented.
“Where are all the jails that would be needed for the hundreds of women who would be arrested after coming to the Wall wearing a tallit and praying out loud to challenge this?” she asked. “This bill stands in contradiction to the Basic Laws of Israel and in opposition to every international declaration Israel signed regarding equality and pluralism.”
Asked why Netanyahu has not spoken out, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, told The Jewish Week: “Why should he speak out against it? It won’t change the situation.”
He insisted that Netanyahu is opposed to the bill and added, “I don’t think there is a chance in the world this bill will be passed. But just raising this sort of possibility creates a furor.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Netanyahu is “aware of our concerns and we would like to see these issues resolved diplomatically … but the prime minister is feeling the challenge from the charedi. There is the implication that if he forces implementation [of the January compromise] the charedi will topple the government.”
But Yizhar Hess, executive director of Conservative Judaism’s Masorti movement in Israel, questioned that premise.
“He [Netanyahu] needs to choose whether he is willing to strategically risk the feeling of world Jewry that Israel is no longer the Jewish home, or is he looking on the narrow perspective of saving his government another week or year,” he said. “We need to remember that the current government has given the charedi things they never got before, and I cannot imagine the likelihood of them going to elections over the Kotel and an agreement they signed. This is the best government for the charedi ever — budgets for their yeshivot are the highest ever and the government canceled the draft bill that forced yeshiva students to go to the army. They have won the lottery with this government.”
Hess added that the Kotel Bill “would spit in the face of world Jewry and be a strategic threat to the very basic notion of a Jewish state.”
Rabbi Wernick said the bill “risks an actual rupture between the diaspora and Israel. It would criminalize our religious expression in the heart of Jerusalem at the Kotel, and this is unconscionable. The fact that any Israeli party would offer such a bill raises alarm … about where Israel itself is going with regard to its religious identity. It would be disastrous for Israel and make Israel practically the only country in the world in which Jewish expression would be a criminal act.”
He added that the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party sponsored the bill and that in comes in reaction to Women of the Wall smuggling a Torah into their monthly morning service.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, which represents about 1.5 million Reform Jews, described the bill as “draconian and unthinkable … and would set us back light years. The thought of this passing the Knesset would send shutters through the American-Israeli relationship and cause irreparable harm at one of the most delicate moments in that critically important relationship.”
“This bill is like using a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Israeli religious rights group ITIM, said he does not believe the Israeli government “is aware of the irreparable damage it has caused to Israel’s reputation as a Jewish state by not implementing the January agreement.” He called on the American Jewish community to speak out against the bill.
But Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, said his organization believes such issues as religious integrity “should be determined by the citizens of Israel through the processes of their democratically elected government and institutions. … In our view it is inappropriate for American organizations to be interfering with those democratic institutions.”
Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said his group is “opposed to what Women of the Wall is doing. … We’re against trying to change the status quo.”
Farber wondered aloud whether “we tell American Jews to stay away and don’t give money until these issues are resolved. I am hesitant to do that. On the other hand, if you don’t cry out loud enough and strong enough no one really listens — and that is the tension.”
Rabbi Wernick noted that each year his movement “sends over 1,000 teens to Israel on our programs, and it would make it very difficult for us to go to Jerusalem and not be able to daven [pray] or celebrate b’nai mitzvot as we have been doing for 20 years at Robinson’s Arch.”
Sharansky scoffed at the suggestion of such boycotts, telling The Jewish Week: “I am totally against the bill, but I am not sympathetic to these kinds of statements. How will they [American Jewish teenagers] get a Jewish identity? It is important they discover Israel because it is the best way for [Jewish] identification.”
With respect to withholding financial support for Israeli charities, he questioned “who is giving more money to whom.”
“Those who are sending their kids on Birthright [should know that] one-third of the money comes from the Israeli government. I can’t say to whom [the financial ties] are more important. It would be undermined [if American Jews withheld their charitable dollars]. Both sides would lose. I don’t like it when we start such discussions about who gets more money.”