By freezing the Western Wall plan, Israel has shown that it doesn’t care at all about the rights of millions of Conservative and Reform Jews to pray at Israel’s holiest site, the world screamed yesterday. That’s not true, and it is important to set the record straight. Israel gets enough negative press as it is.
For more than 15 years, the Conservative and Reform movements had been holding egalitarian prayer services next to Robinson’s Arch, in a well-maintained archaeological park by the southern part of the Western Wall. As you can see from the pictures taken this morning (Monday), the area is clean, quiet, beautiful, and child-friendly. There are several spacious prayer areas on multiple levels, offering a calm and shady setting that is never available at the “main” Kotel. The official Masorti movement website advertises it in glowing terms, and rightfully so. For the most part, the plaza has remained off the radar for Haredi protesters, and the rare occasions when the area was closed were caused by administrative issues, not religious ones.
In 2013, then-Religious Affairs minister Naftali Bennett built new platforms for prayer at the Southern Wall, added a direct staircase from the parking lot, and renamed the area “Azarat Yisrael,” a prayer area for all of Israel. The area is open all week, and entrance is free. About 100,000 Conservative and Reform worshipers pray at the egalitarian prayer space every year, or about 275 per day. On my 7:45 a.m. visit this morning, I saw three different groups there to celebrate smachot.
The plan that was frozen yesterday would have built a permanent larger space in the area, and more importantly, granted recognition to the Conservative and Reform movements to administer it. That’s what was scuttled by the Haredi parties on Sunday. While the move was a political setback for those camps, it is hardly a denial of their right to pray at the Kotel, or a sign that Israel doesn’t want them.