All Jews should take pride in the historic compromise reached by the Israeli government this week in providing dignified access for prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place.
To be clear, it does not allow equal access for all. And, like all good compromises, there are those on both the traditional and liberal sides of the dispute unhappy with the resolution. But in finding what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called “a fair and creative solution,” the government has gone a long way in acknowledging — if not formally recognizing — the desires of Conservative and Reform men and women, and other liberal Jews, to pray together.
Among the champions of this step toward religious accommodation are Women of the Wall, the prayer group that initiated the effort more than 25 years ago; Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who first proposed the plan three years ago and used his clout to see it through; and the prime minister, who managed to orchestrate government approval despite opposition from the charedi members of his coalition.
As Sharansky noted in explaining the long-overdue agreement, “they all came to the conclusion that they must make serious compromises because they want it to remain one Kotel for one people. It’s the place that must unite us more than anything else, and it turned into the most ugly war.”
When the project is completed, in about two years, co-ed prayer will be permitted at any time of the day or night in an area of the Kotel about 30 feet long, south of the “traditional,” or main, area. The size of the section, known as Robinson’s Arch, will almost double to nearly 10,000 square feet, estimated to accommodate 1,200 people. That is half the size of the “traditional” section of the wall, which will remain under the full authority of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a charedi group. Men and women will continue to pray separately there, separated by a mechitzah.
According to the deal announced this week, the Women of the Wall will have to move their Rosh Chodesh services from the main prayer section to the Robinson’s Arch area but will be free of the harassment and arrests that plagued their prayer meetings over the years.
Even while heralding this important example of tolerance and inclusion, we note that diaspora Jews who are not Orthodox need to feel accepted not only at the Western Wall, but throughout Israel. That means recognition of the liberal branches of Judaism, which account for the vast majority of American Jews. That is not likely to happen soon in a government coalition where leaders of the religious parties resist even naming the Conservative and Reform movements. And the Chief Rabbinate continues to make conversion more difficult rather than inviting for the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking relatives of Jews in Israel. Indeed, it is a tragedy that the policies and behavior of the Chief Rabbis cause most Israelis to reject many of Judaism’s richest practices and ideals. So there is still a long way to go before diaspora Jews are fully accepted in the Jewish state.
For the moment, though, let us celebrate a milestone in resolving a bitter, complex, religious and political dispute. May it set an example for the future.