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This Is the Practical Issue that the Government Needs to Consider

The Kotel Framework is a molehill that’s turned into a mountain. It has been around for five years now. Few are well-versed in its details. Few are interested in it. For a few, the framework is truly important. What needs to happen in order for it to be implemented?

The Kotel Framework is a molehill that’s turned into a mountain. It’s been around for five years now. Few are well-versed in its details. Few are interested in it. For a few, it’s truly important. For the rest, it’s background noise, and our attitude toward it is determined by the camp to which we belong, our ideological affiliation. We don’t look in depth at the minutiae of this arrangement that almost happened but didn’t; rather, we view it through a good-guys/bad-guys lens. The good guys are the Reform Jews; the bad guys are the Rabbinate. Or vice versa: the bad guys are the Reform; the good guys are the Orthodox conservatives.

The Kotel Framework is a fundamentally paradoxical endeavor. It’s favored primarily by those who seldom visit the Kotel. It is rejected mainly by those who go to the Kotel often. Of course, there are many more Jews who visit the Kotel infrequently, and so, in theory, the Kotel Framework has more supporters than opponents. On the other hand, if you go to the Kotel on any given day and look at who’s for the arrangement and who’s against it, you’ll find that most are against it. Most of those actually present at the Kotel site are against it.

This paradox reflects two problems with the arrangement. One is a theoretical issue: Is it right to impose on those who frequent the Kotel an arrangement desired mainly by those who only rarely go there? To put it simply: Does the Kotel belong to everyone equally (and it’s worth asking who “everyone” is), or does it belong a little more to those who go there a little more? The other issue is a practical one: How great an investment of money and other resources would be needed to implement the Kotel Framework if most of those who are at the Kotel every day oppose it, and would likely express their opposition by disrupting its implementation? Simply put: How many police officers stationed at the Kotel would it take for Israel to ensure the Framework’s implementation?

And now for a step backward: In 2016, the Israeli government approved a framework whose purpose was to facilitate orderly worship at the Kotel by non-Orthodox Jews. Who are these Jews? They are mainly Jews from abroad, who want to pray according to their custom, in mixed male-female prayer services; there are also a fair number of Israelis who would happily utilize this option for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies – especially the latter, in which the bat mitzvah girl goes up to the Torah.

The Kotel Framework was meant to solve two problems. One was the problem of all these aforementioned Jews. The other was that of a group known as “Women of the Wall.” Many people confuse the two problems – more politely referred to as “challenges” – or fail to distinguish between them. But they are not identical. Those who outlined the Kotel Framework hoped to kill two birds with one stone – to pacify the progressive Jewish movements and their supporters in the United States, and to remove the monthly Women of the Wall hazard from the Kotel plaza. Move it where? To another plaza that would be created in the southern part of the Kotel. That plaza has, in fact, already been built, in a daring nighttime operation spearheaded by operatives of Naftali Bennett, then Minister of Diaspora Affairs, now Prime Minister.

The plaza was built and came to be, sort-of (there are engineering and other problems that hinder its actual proximity to the Kotel), but the Framework itself never came to be, not even sort-of. The government approved it, then changed its mind, under pressure from the Haredi parties. What’s missing if the plaza already exists? What’s missing are all of the associated arrangements, such as joint entry to both the old and the new Kotels, and, in particular, institutional arrangements for stewardship of the new Kotel.

In the Framework it was agreed that the new Kotel would be administratively subordinate to a council with representatives from the Reform and the Conservative movements. This is important for two reasons. One is that of ensuring that the plaza is policed so as to allow egalitarian prayer in the spirit of these movements (and not as occurred on Tisha B’Av, when a gang of Orthodox Jews from Hardal (Haredi-leumi) organizations took over the southern plaza, set up a mechitza (partition between men and women) there, and did not allow visitors from the progressive streams to quietly gather at the site). The other reason is that of providing the movements with a grain of institutional legitimacy. The very inclusion of representatives of the movements, by prime ministerial appointment, in the southern Kotel’s management constitutes a kind of state recognition of the streams’ legitimacy.

 

 

 Graph 1. Egalitarian Prayer for Women and for the Non-Orthodox Streams Should be Allowed at a Separate Plaza at the Kotel

Left to right: Strongly agree, Somewhat agree, Somewhat disagree, Completely disagree, Don’t know

Data: Viterbi Center at the Israel Democracy Institute, 2019

 

We’re remembering all of this today because next week the Kotel plaza is returning to the Supreme Court. The last time the Court deliberated on this topic, a year ago, in early November 2020, the state explained that there were delays in arranging the alternative plaza – among other things, due to “three election cycles.” Since that time, a fourth round of elections was held, and a new prime minister took office. Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported the Framework until he opposed it, and then proceeded to support it in part, but not really, gave way to his successor. Bennet, who as Minister of Diaspora Affairs built the additional plaza, was not always entirely clear regarding the Framework’s other provisions.

After creating the plaza, Bennett decided: “The present solution that we’ve come up with is the right one. The plaza, as it is today, is dignified and suitable for family prayer.” Last week as well, when attacking Shas and Aryeh Deri, who aim to turn the Kotel battle into a political campaign against the government, Bennett did not explicitly commit to upholding the Framework per past agreement. “When there’s a problem – you solve it through dialogue,” the Prime Minister said. He surely must remember that such a dialogue was already conducted five years ago, and culminated in the framework that was supposed to have been implemented. If the dialogue is reopened, that means that there is no intention of implementing the Framework as formulated at present. Unless Bennett knows differently.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai is working hard to get the Framework implemented. “I won’t rest until it happens,” he said at a Jewish People’s Lobby conference at the Knesset. “This is a major development for the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and for many Israeli citizens.” When he was still in the opposition, Shai submitted a no-confidence motion against the Netanyahu government, because it hadn’t implemented the Framework. Thus, he cannot be accused of inconsistency. On the other hand, Minister Ze’ev Elkin cannot be accused of inconsistency either. Elkin hinted this week that he would oppose the Framework, as he has done in the past. He has a serious theoretical argument, namely, that it is inappropriate to hand over a piece of real estate next to the Kotel for management by religious streams. If the Framework is implemented, the third plaza should be given to an official body such as the Jewish Agency to manage. The Jewish Agency would, of course, be able to appoint whomever it wants, including Reform figures, to manage the plaza in practice. But there will be no official recognition of the movement’s status here.

And now, almost as usual, the state looks like a poor beggar going to the Supreme Court to plead for yet another concession, another deferral, more time to decide. We can already guess what the arguments will be: There was a pandemic, there were elections, there was a budget, it was hard. The Kotel Framework is stuck in our throats like a fish bone. That’s how it was with the previous government, that’s how it is with this government – you can’t swallow it, you can’t spit it out. It’s very useful for all those who make a living out of discord. Shas, as noted, will put the color back in its cheeks with a campaign to defend the Kotel from the “Reform Cossacks.” The progressive movements will rush to complain to their friends in America, who’ll immediately explain how Israeli governmental policy is driving their young people away from Zionism and support for Israel. Ministers on the left will prove their loyalty by sending urgent messages about their support for the Framework. Ministers on the right will nod to the Haredim with urgent messages about the issue being “complex,” and about the need to reexamine how it should be solved.

It’s no coincidence that Nachman Shai, who supports the Framework, is considering a move from the post of Diaspora Affairs Minister to that of Jewish Agency Chairman (the elections for that position are still ahead of us). It’s no coincidence that Ze’ev Elkin, who opposed the Framework, was thinking at the time about running for Mayor of Jerusalem. The Framework is a political problem that puts the support-but-don’t-visit (the Kotel) camp in confrontation with the visit-but-don’t-support (the Framework) camp. The constituency of Shai, and of Yair Lapid, wants the Framework. But don’t expect that constituency to take to the streets to demand the Framework’s implementation. Elkin’s constituency – actually, Elkin doesn’t have a constituency; it’s better to talk about Deri’s constituency – is willing to put itself out there to undermine the will of the majority and of the government (should the government decide that it does want the Framework).

This is a problem that even the Supreme Court can’t solve. The Court can order the government to uphold this or that arrangement. It can order the government to more decisively protect the Women of the Wall. It can decide that the government isn’t meeting the goals it set for itself. But the Supreme Court can’t change what’s happening on the ground, and what’s happening on the ground is this: the Haredim and their supporters have thousands of soldiers, male and female, who are willing to put their lives on the line by throwing dirty diapers at women who’ve come to pray. The Framework supporters barely have a hundred soldiers willing to waste their time on something that doesn’t really interest them (they’ll deny this, of course, and say it interests them greatly – but interest doesn’t manifest in press releases. Rather, it manifests in showing up for the struggle – and that kind of showing-up hasn’t been seen, and is unlikely to be seen, in the near future).

What does all this mean? That, apparently, it would have been better not to enter the endless tunnel of good intentions, from which there is no exit. That some means should likely have been sought to keep the molehill from becoming a mountain. Yes – it would be better if the Kotel Framework could be implemented; yes – it would be better if the Haredim could be persuaded that no damage would be done – not to them, not to the Kotel, and not to the Jewish People – if a few tourists were to decide to visit the southern Kotel and not the northern one; yes – it would be better if the government had the power to make a decision and uphold it. But the truth is that it doesn’t. It has no power. Not if we take into account all the more important things that need to be done. Not if we take into account that it’s better for Merav Michaeli to spend her time solving the traffic problem, and that it’s better for Omer Bar-Lev to spend his time solving the violence problem, and that it’s better for Avigdor Lieberman to spend his time solving the housing problem.

And what of the Kotel? Apparently, it will wait. Like a lot of problems that are waiting for a more suitable time.

Standard deviation

  1. The Hardal Noam party published a survey meant to give the impression that the public opposes the Kotel Framework. The survey, by Ma’agar Mochot, is misleading. Rather than asking whether the public is for or against the Kotel Framework, or for or against a third Kotel plaza for egalitarian prayer for men and women, an oddly-worded question was chosen. Will the Framework’s implementation “by Naftali Bennett […] strengthen unity or widen the rifts?” A majority of respondents said it would widen the rifts – maybe because they’re against Bennett, maybe because, despite supporting the Framework, they’re pessimistic about the rifts. Who knows? One way or another – this isn’t a question that illuminates public opinion regarding the Kotel Framework; it’s political manipulation.
  2. Want to know what the public really thinks? The Israel Democracy Institute worded the question appropriately: Do you agree, or disagree, that “egalitarian prayer should be allowed for women and for the non-Orthodox streams in a separate plaza at the Kotel?” The results: A small majority in favor. Religious against, secular in favor, just as one would have expected.
  3. By the way, the results for this question change when respondents are explicitly asked about “women with tefillin.” Quite a few Israelis still have trouble with the idea of women with tefillin.
  4. Joe Biden’s approval rating is sinking, and it turned out this week that most Americans lack confidence in the President as commander-in-chief “in the event of […] a military threat against the US.” A Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans intend to vote for Republican candidates in the midterm elections, exactly a year from now.

This week we made use of information, quotes, and data from the Madad website, Maariv, Makor Rishon, Women of the Wall petitions, the Kotel Framework document, and polls by the Israel Democracy Institute, the Jewish People Policy Institute, the Noam party, TIP, and the Washington Post.