Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, speaks with members of the media near the Western Wall on Jan. 31, reacting to the Israeli government’s passage of a new plan on egalitarian prayer rights at the Jewish holy site. (photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90 via jns.org)
The Israeli government’s passage of legislation that authorizes egalitarian prayer in a soon-to-be-created 9,700-square-foot, NIS 35 million ($8.85 million) section adjacent to the southern part of the Western Wall (Kotel) has been called groundbreaking, empowering, dramatic and unprecedented. The section could be ready in as soon as a few months or up to two years from now.
“This is a fair and creative solution,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after the 15-5 vote on the measure by his cabinet.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said the decision would “connect world Jewry to the state of Israel.” Jerry Silverman, chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), called it a “major step forward.” Member of Knesset Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) said the Kotel was “liberated” again; this time not by soldiers, but by women in Jewish prayer shawls.
Indeed, for 27 years, Women of the Wall pushed for women’s equality at the Kotel. Formal negotiations have been going on for almost three years. In a statement, the group said more than just an agreement has been achieved: “The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Instead of splitting up the existing pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger.”
The new section, which will qualify for government funding, will be managed by a public council, governed by a committee headed by the chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and comprised of representatives from the Reform and Masorti (Conservative Judaism in Israel) movements, JFNA and Women of the Wall. An administrator for the section will be appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Beyond the blueprints, the ratified plan is a powerful statement about the overt impact that Diaspora Jewry and global Jewish leaders can have on Israeli decision-making.
North American Jews have traditionally served as a political lifeline for Israel, lobbying their governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Recent occurrences have shifted the relationship between the North American and Israeli Jewish communities into one of semi-equality, which includes North American Jewish leaders objectively discussing Israel’s policies rather than blindly supporting them.
Silverman called this shift evolutionary. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said the negotiations “prove the role that North American Jewry … can and should play in helping Israel make our country more inclusive.”
“Kudos to the unrelenting advocacy from the North American Jewish community in pushing for this,” said Rafi Rone, former vice-president of Jewish and Israel Initiatives at the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds. “The dawning of a new day.”
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said that American and Israeli Jews are becoming increasingly interdependent. The U.S. needs Israel to help strengthen Jewish identity in a Diaspora community that is slowly shrinking from assimilation and intermarriage, he said. Israel, attacked daily by the international community, needs the solidarity of Jewish communities abroad, he explained.
“I am sure that the [Israeli] government must now take into account – should take into consideration – the position of world Jewry on the decisions it makes,” Hagay Elizur, senior director of Diaspora affairs for Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, told JNS.org.
Netanyahu might be feeling the pressure of unprecedented U.S.-Israel political tension. Last August’s Peace Index poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University showed that 48% of Israeli Jews worried that Netanyahu’s campaign against the Iran nuclear deal would damage U.S.-Israel relations.
Read more at jns.org.