It has been a year since the Israeli government agreed to establish an egalitarian prayer space in Jerusalem’s Southern Kotel Plaza that would be independent of the strict ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and the Ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Western Wall. The government agreement called for the construction of an attractive prayer space equivalent in size to the traditional prayer space and visible from the entrance of the plaza. The prayer space would be overseen by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Women of the Wall.
It is a year later and nothing has happened.
When I was in Jerusalem in October for meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, the 120 of us representing world Jewry met in the Knesset with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He asked us to be patient and explained that he needed more time to work with his coalition partners to implement the agreement.
Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky, who the Prime Minister had asked three years earlier to meet with all the interested parties to find a consensus agreement, told us minutes before the Prime Minister came into the Chagall Lobby that the Prime Minister was indeed committed to doing everything he could to implement this agreement, except one thing – Netanyahu would not sacrifice his government or his position as Prime Minister – and that of course, is the rub!
Once the agreement was signed in January 2016 that included the Ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Wall, the ultra-Orthodox political parties in the government rose up in defiance and threatened to bring down the government should the agreement move forward and be implemented. Rather than take that risk and form a new government without the Ultra-Orthodox, Mr. Netanyahu seems to have taken the position that the preservation of his government and his position as Prime Minister are more important than the facilitation of an agreement that would preserve the unity of the Jewish people and welcome to the holiest site in Judaism every Jew who wishes to pray according to his or her Jewish custom.
In the Jewish Forward (“The Wall That’s Growing Between Us,” January 27, 2017), Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner reviews the history of this effort. She says: “So now, a year after nothing, a time for pleading an exhortation may be over.”
Eisner quotes Elazar Stern, a member of the Knesset from the centrist Yesh Atid party and a former major general in the Israeli Defense Forces, that whenever he meets leaders from the Diaspora “I tell them they must insist that these issues be dealt with immediately. And until that happens, I say to them, ‘You need to stop inviting them [i.e.Israeli government leaders including, I presume, Prime Minister Netanyahu] as guests of honor to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Jewish Federation conferences. Even if you really need them — and I know you need them — hold back for just two years. It won’t take longer than that for them to see that they need you even more than you need them.”
Stern throws down a gauntlet to world Jewry, and I wonder whether we’ll pick it up. Stay tuned!