New Western Wall Prayer Space Highlights Wider Divide Among Jews

By Isabel Kershner, The New York Times

JERUSALEM — It seemed a solution worthy of Solomon: create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall alongside the gender-segregated area that has been the subject of vitriolic protest.

The Israeli government’s compromise decision this week was hailed as “historic” and “revolutionary,” yet it also underscored the divide between Israel and its Orthodox establishment and the diaspora, particularly in the United States, where most Jews identify as Reform or Conservative.

Most American Jews say they feel emotionally attached to Israel. Many also say they do not feel at home here, and the Western Wall, the iconic place of worship in Jerusalem’s Old City that attracts throngs of ultra-Orthodox Jews and tourists daily, has been the highest-profile symbol of that alienation.

“This would not have happened had it not been for strong, growing pressure from American Jewry,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and Israel-based advocate of religious liberty and pluralism, said of the government’s move. “In my view, this was not predicated on the powers that be seeing the light, but it was a response to very concrete pressure conveyed to Israel through diplomatic representatives, Jewish federations and key donors.”

Mr. Regev has long argued that too much attention had been devoted to the Western Wall compared with other areas of Israeli life where a growing number of Jews have been chafing at the grip of the strictly Orthodox rabbinate, which does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism. In the absence of any provision for civil marriage, some 300,000 Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, and who do not qualify as fully Jewish under the Halakha, or religious law, cannot get a marriage license in Israel, and the rabbinate also controls most of the country’s burial sites.

Now the question is whether the new prayer space at the wall — also known by its Hebrew name, the Kotel — is a first step toward more fundamental change or only a resolution to a localized problem.

Mr. Regev acknowledged that the compromise, “in some sense, can be described as dramatic.” But, he added, “I hope that this euphoric phase will not weaken our ability to look reality in the face” and “to understand that compelling battles still lie ahead.”

“A Kotel B that we can pull out and beautify — that luxury does not exist when it comes, say, to the right to marry,” he said.

The power of the Orthodox rabbinate largely stems from Israeli realpolitik. Governing coalitions on the right and left have for decades made deals with ultra-Orthodox political parties to give them wide berth over religious matters in exchange for support on diplomatic or budget priorities.

The current government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the most conservative in years. Its ministers have been promoting divisive legislation — like a “loyalty in culture” initiative and legislation that would require nongovernmental organizations to disclose funding they receive from foreign governments. Such legislation has brought condemnation from liberal Jews abroad.

The Kotel decision, after years of fierce discussion and delay, came as a rare contra to this trend. But the timing was more prosaic, and it probably does not portend any broader shift. Officials said the parties were pushed to wrap up negotiations because Mr. Netanyahu’s point person on the matter, Avichai Mandelblit, was leaving his post as cabinet secretary to become attorney general.

The new prayer space, where men and women can worship together, is to receive public funding. It will be governed by a committee led by the head of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that works with the Diaspora, and will include representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Israeli government and Women of the Wall, a group that for 27 years has been agitating against the male-dominated establishment.

Advocates say this amounts to state recognition of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, though the laconic cabinet resolution sidestepped the issue by avoiding the words “Reform” and “Conservative,” instead referring obliquely to “the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.”

A last-minute argument over the wording at Sunday’s cabinet meeting ended with the government decision “to implement” the recommendations of the advisory team, rather than “to adopt” them. The resolution passed, though the ultra-Orthodox coalition members voted against it — and got in their licks.

Referring to Reform Jews, Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox Parliament leader, said, “There will never, ever be recognition for this group of clowns, not at the wall and not anywhere else.”

The plan is likely to face many hurdles. The wall is a remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount, revered by Jews as the location of their ancient temples and the holiest site in Judaism. The mount also houses Al Aqsa Mosque compound, one of the three holiest sites in Islam.

Israeli archaeologists have protested that upgrading the area of Robinson’s Arch, the site of an ancient staircase, into a permanent, non-Orthodox prayer space will damage one of the most important archaeological sites in the Old City. Palestinian officials and religious figures have also condemned the plan, saying the Western Wall, or Al Buraq, is the property of the Islamic Waqf, or trust. (Israel conquered the site, along with the rest of the Old City and the West Bank, from Jordan during the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move that was never internationally recognized.)

The broader issues that have dogged Israel-Diaspora relations for decades include Israel’s refusal to recognize Reform and Conservative conversion, so legions of Americans who have grown up as Jews would not be considered Jewish enough to marry in Israel.

Israelis whose Judaism is questioned by the rabbinate — or who just do not want to adhere to its strictures — have made an end-run around the institution by marrying abroad, particularly in Cyprus; the government recognizes these unions.

Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based group focused on strengthening relations between Israel and American Jewry, said it had found in a recent telephone poll of 500 Jewish Israelis that Israeli society was often more accommodating than its authorities. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said that all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, should feel that the Western Wall belongs to them and should feel welcome in Israel.

“The leadership does not speak the same way that the people on the ground feel,” Ms. Ruderman said. The Kotel decision, she added, showed that “pluralism kicked in” and that Israel is “open to change.”

But Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the president of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, noted that many Israeli Jews, though not religiously observant themselves, accepted the traditional establishment, a sector he described as “Orthodox atheists” or “secular Orthodox.”

“We live in a state and want a unified system,” he said, whereas abroad, “there is a desire to bring into the tent everyone who feels Jewish.”

Mr. Bar-Yosef said he expected many Israeli families to celebrate bar mitzvahs in the new prayer section, where they can be together. But when it comes to marriage, which impacts on the status of the children, he said, “A majority prefers to have marriage done by the system, and the system today is the rabbinate.”