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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

One of the most visible conflicts between the Reform and Conservative Movements on one side, and the state along with the Ultra-Orthodox elements that control religious aspects of the state on the other, and which has garnered considerable media attention and drawn the outrage of Diaspora Jews, has revolved around equal access to the Kotel (Western Wall). This conflict was exacerbated by the June 25, 2017 government announcement that it was freezing (essentially shelving) the landmark compromise agreement reached in January 2016.160

The Reform and Conservative Movements together with Women of the Wall and the Jewish Federations of North America negotiated an agreement, over the course of a few years, with the Prime Minister’s Office, to officially establish an egalitarian section at the Kotel.

The compromise struck in early 2016 with the mediation and leadership of Natan Sharansky, then Chairman of the Jewish Agency, the Prime Minister’s Office, Kotel Rabbi Rabinovich, and with the awareness of the Haredi political parties, mandated the establishment of an egalitarian third Kotel space on par with the two traditional (men only and women only) sections. In addition, the area currently allotted to egalitarian prayer (since 2000), near Robinson’s Arch, would be upgraded and expanded significantly.

According to the agreement, the egalitarian site would receive public funding for upkeep, prayer books, and Torah scrolls and lead to the establishment of a religious council to oversee it, which would include Reform and Conservative representatives as well as a representative of Women of the Wall. The “custom of the place” (minhag hamakom) was to include gender equality.161 The current delineation of the Western Wall as a holy site was to expand to include the egalitarian site, which today is not officially designated as part of the Kotel. Most importantly, the agreement included anchoring in law the section as a space for pluralistic prayer.

According to the Religious Affairs Ministry and others interviewed, when word of the agreement reached the Haredi community, pressure mounted on the Haredi political parties and forced them to back out. While they initially opposed the plan, they only did so tacitly and did not work to actively prevent its implementation until pressure from their electorate demanded action. The ministry added that Chief Rabbi Lau claimed he had been kept out of the loop and the parties claimed that they did not read the agreement’s fine print, especially regarding the establishment of the religious council.

In February of 2017, the government appointed Minister Tzachi HaNegbi to oversee the issue and advance a compromise between the parties involved, namely the Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, and the Government of Israel. This was welcomed by the Reform and Conservative Movements as a step in the right direction.162

In June 2017, in a letter sent to the government, the Chief Rabbinate expressed its opposition to the compromise agreement and against any agreement that might lead to mixed-gender prayer at the Kotel.163 It is of note that the Chief Rabbinate’s Legal Counsel refused to represent this position in the courts, forcing the Rabbinate to hire an independent counsel.

On June 25, 2017, after intense lobbying by ultra-Orthodox coalition members, the government announced it was freezing the implementation of the agreement, likely ahead of the June 26 High Court deadline for the government to respond to petitions by the Reform and Conservative Movements for an explanation why the deal had yet to be implemented.164 However, the government announced it would continue with the planned physical upgrades to the current make-shift platform near Robinson’s Arch. According to press reports from the week preceding the announcement, this was a “compromise” that the ultra-Orthodox parties were willing to accept – the key sticking point for them having been the establishment of the governing council.165

Given the intense and outraged reaction of the U.S. Jewish community,166 Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a six-month freeze on the matter in order to strike some form of compromise. The matter drew attention from a number of members of Congress (Jewish, with large Jewish constituencies), the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and even the White House, all calling for a resolution and calming of tensions.167 This incident significantly strained Israel-Diaspora relations and led to heightened levels of disappointment and disapproval among Diaspora leaders. Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to assuage some of this anger on a visit to the U.S., where he met American Jewish leaders (September 2017). Netanyahu reportedly addressed the tension inherent in Israel’s political system regarding the Kotel, and defended his decision, stressing that “he didn’t cancel the agreement, but merely froze one paragraph,” the one relating to the governing council, further reiterating his intention to invest millions of shekels in government funding to upgrade and expand the existing egalitarian platform.168 However, he did not help matters when it was reported (by Army Radio) that he accused the movements of trying to use the pretext of the joint administration clause as a secret back door to gain recognition.169

Israeli public opinion on this matter is largely supportive of the pluralistic movements. Recent polling shows that a majority of Israelis support establishing an egalitarian section at the Kotel. According to a September 2016 Jerusalem Post Magazine Poll, 61 percent of Israeli Jews, including 82 percent of Hiloni Jews and 59 percent of Masorti Jews favored this, while 83 percent of Dati Jews opposed such a move.170 Another Hiddush poll taken days after the decision was frozen, (June 27, 2017) showed that 63 percent of respondents disagreed with the Israeli government decision to suspend the deal while only 37 percent supported the freeze. Not surprisingly, the split was largely according to party lines – virtually all Haredi respondents favored cancelling the deal, while strong majorities of Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu voters (84 and 80 percent respectively) were against. Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) voters were evenly split.171

A poll conducted at the same time by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (associated with the Conservative movement) and undertaken by the Geocartography Institute, similarly found 62 percent of respondents agreed that people should be allowed to pray in an equal manner (meaning an egalitarian platform equal to the traditional space), another 17 percent said people should be able to pray in an equal manner but with priority given for Orthodox/traditional prayer. Six percent responded that the non-Orthodox should have superior status while another 9 percent said that non-Orthodox prayer and Women of the Wall should be banned from the site altogether.172 Most recently, an October 2017 Dialogue Institute poll conducted for the Reform Movement in Israel found that 58 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that “communal Reform and Conservative prayer should be allowed at the Kotel,” while 33 percent said it should not.173

However, as noted, the Ultra-Orthodox and many in the Orthodox world are firmly opposed to the establishment of an egalitarian section. Liba Center, an activist organization that promotes conservative Orthodox positions on matters of religion and state, is one such group.

Liba notes that the agreement would “represent a fundamental change from the current practice in the Ezrat Yisrael (egalitarian) section. From a small area without official status (administrative, budgetary, or religious) this area would be turned into a … space with status equal to that of the main Kotel Plaza…managed solely in accordance with Reform customs…” Liba claims that this would amount to a “tremendous hazard and breach of the status quo” and would “open the door for additional demands for recognition and equality in other matters of religion and state (conversion, marriage, kashrut).174

Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, of Arachim, an ultra-Orthodox organization in Israel that reaches out to secular Jews, noted that theoretically, he (and many Haredi Jews) could live with the establishment of the egalitarian section were they convinced the Reform and Conservative Movements were truly interested in a place to pray. However, the sense in the Haredi community is that the Reform and Conservative efforts regarding the Kotel was a provocative media stunt, leading to unnecessary resentment in his community.

According to Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev, and based on polling he has conducted, the Kotel issue is not without irony. That is, while a clear majority of secular and traditional Israelis support the egalitarian section and granting equality to the liberal movements, this is not an important priority for them. According to Regev, only 11 percent of the Israeli Jews polled thought this a high-priority matter; issues of religious restrictions on their daily lives weigh far heavier on their agenda – marriage, public transportation and shopping on Shabbat, etc. Conversely, he points out, this has become the flagship issue for American Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox, and who do not need to contend with issues of daily life in Israel.

While the Israeli Reform and Conservative Movements, and some civil society organizations will continue pushing for the agreement’s implementation, with the backing of the U.S. Jewish community, they simply do not have enough political power committed to this issue, unlike the Haredi parties who are able to use their entire coalitional weight to block the agreement and threaten to bring down the government if the agreement is implemented.

At the time of this writing, and unless the political coalition reality in Israel changes to exclude the Haredi parties, the government is advancing with its plan to physically upgrade the egalitarian platform and extend the boundaries of the Kotel as a holy site to the southern area. Both of these actions were part of the original compromise agreement. The government will not however, as originally agreed upon, create a visible entrance on par with the traditional area, nor appoint Reform and Conservative representatives to a governing council.175