The Kotel 'prayer space' row explained

Which religious group is fighting for which patch of the Western Wall complex?


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “frozen” the deal that would have made the Western Wall a place where all Jews can pray as they wish, and many are claiming that with this move he has effectively rejected diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

But this was not about rejecting diaspora Jewry. It’s about political interests. And it’s something we Israeli Jews - even us Orthodox - face too. Every state-wide religious decision – whether regarding standards of marriage, divorce or conversion - is made by the strictly-Orthodox parties. They control the Rabbinate, and with the ear of the government, they control the Jewish aspects of people’s lives.

Netanyahu built his coalition by promising the Charedi parties jurisdiction over religious matters (as most governments before him). When he balks at their demands, they threaten to bring down his coalition. Naturally, Bibi does not want his government to fall.

He tried governing without them, in the last government, but found it harder to appease Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) than to cater to the Charedi parties. So much so, that he brought down his own government to precipitate new elections in 2015.  By partnering the parties that accommodate him politically, in return for control of the areas they want, his power in government is secured, and once again, issues regarding public religious life are at the mercy of the Charedi parties. (Note: Charedi politicians do not necessarily have the same priorities even as Charedi individuals).

What’s at stake this time? Far below the ramp leading to the only access point for non-Muslims to Temple Mount, stretches the Western Wall. The Kotel plaza is to the left, which is run according to Orthodox standards of worship, and to the right is “Robinson’s Arch”, where, since 2000, those who identify with Judaism’s progressive movements have held egalitarian prayer services.

At the Kotel, men and women pray separately, women may not read from the Torah, and women who wear tefillin and tallit are often harassed. This has led to battles over who can use the Kotel and how.

Seeking a compromise between pressure from the Jewish Agency and diaspora Jewry on the one hand, and opposing pressure from the strictly-Orthodox to preserve the “Orthodox” nature of the Kotel plaza on the other, in 2013, the government built a larger platform at the southern side, where people could worship as they wished until a permanent solution was decided.

In 2016, the “Kotel deal” was reached. The egalitarian prayer area would be expanded and the entrance into the Western Wall plaza would be altered so that all could enter at the same point and then go to the prayer area of their choice. The Kotel would remain under Orthodox supervision, the southern area under Conservative and Reform supervision.

This plan has been halted by Mr Netanyahu at the insistence of the strictly-Orthodox parties and some members of Bayit Yehudi (the Jewish Home party) - whose leader, Naftali Bennett, announced on Monday that while the platform would still be expanded, the entrance and management would not change.

In understanding the dynamics at play, it is important to note that most people in Israel have no problem with the compromise delineated by the Kotel deal. It is also important to note that most Israelis have no problem with the Kotel as it is. Thus, as long as the majority of people who want change live outside of Israel, and as long as the political parties who do not want change are the ones willing to bring down the government for it, issues of religion will only ever be decided by the parties willing to make them their battle cry.

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