It is crunch time for the deal for the Kotel, the national holy site of the Jewish people, and Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site on the Kotel’s southern extension.
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements are en route to Israel to press Prime Minister Netanyahu to implement the deal ahead of a Supreme Court date this week in a case I and other activists have brought to enforce the right of Jewish women to read Torah freely at the Wall. Israel’s Supreme Court has long recognized this right, which the haredi rabbinic administrator of the Kotel has blocked.
The deal would place Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, under Reform and Conservative auspices, with state funds to run it, bestowing official recognition these movements have long craved. This is why they want the deal — and why the haredi establishment, having negotiated and agreed to it, renounced it after the haredi street erupted in protest against it. The question is why that establishment agreed to it in the first place.
Here’s why the deal is terrible policy; why the haredi establishment agreed to it and may yet accept some version of it; and what the liberal movements should promote in its stead.
The trade-off for making Robinson’s Arch a Reform and Conservative denominational site is a corresponding change in the status of the Kotel, making it denominational haredi space. Contrary to what many assume, the Kotel is not now a synagogue. Its official status is “national holy site.” True, the haredi establishment has imposed haredi practice there, de facto, without any national process about this having occurred, creating a scene which repels many. The deal would make all this official, giving the haredi establishment the right to banish any it wishes.
First on the list for banishment is women’s group prayer, in which we pray aloud, don prayer shawls and lay tefillin if we wish, and read Torah. Ours is the only non-haredi practice at the Wall, and it has legal recognition and even acknowledgement as according with “the custom of the place.” These are historic achievements for Jewish women, which we enact regularly, almost invariably, without incident. Under the deal, police, who now protect us, would ask us to leave, direct us to Robinson’s Arch, and arrest us if we did not comply.
The deal would vastly empower the haredi establishment, against whose ceaseless push to expand its reach we must exercise constant vigilance and resistance. I could readily supply a list of such encroachments, much of it directed at women.
The deal for the Kotel and Robinson’s Arch is terrifyingly short-sighted. We are in a “Ben-Gurion moment” — that prime minister bought off the haredi establishment with army exemption for what he arrogantly predicted would be a negligible number of yeshiva boys, but which has ballooned into a vast and intractable entitlement. This time, it would be not just Israel’s prime minister, but movements based in the US, speaking in the name of millions of American Jews, who would buy off haredi misogyny and contempt for other Jews with the Kotel.
The leaders of the movements are content to have the deal enforced over the rights Jewish women have attained in years of court cases, detentions for donning talitot at the Kotel, and dogged commitment to women’s group presence there. Though they have never met with us, they know we exist: we filed suit in Israel’s Supreme Court in November, 2015, to force the state to enforce women’s right to read Torah at the Wall. The state and the movement leaders know they have no legal leg to stand on in this case, litigated by the Center for Women’s Justice. So they have used the deal, and now, the supposed renegotiation to meet haredi objections (hence, the leaders’ trip to Netanyahu), to argue that the Court should not hear our case, since the deal would banish us from the Kotel.
We, Original Women of the Wall, founders and core activists of women’s group prayer at the Kotel, remain committed to our founding purposes, accommodating women from all streams of Jewish life at the national holy site of the Jewish people, where we give Judaism female form, face, and voice. We wish any who prefer Robinson’s Arch well — as long as this does not come at the expense of our rights.
To the leaders of the movements we say: this is not the way. This deal is wrong — for appropriating our struggle to achieve your ends, and for empowering the fundamentalist forces that plague civil and religious life here.
Take that money, that recognition, and pour it into — school systems, offering financially pressed Israelis who have never heard of your movements alternatives to overcrowded, understaffed, under-resourced, classrooms. Vastly expand your educational infrastructure, particularly in “peripheral” communities. In 15 years, you will begin to graduate cohorts of young people schooled in Torah and pluralism. Think, on this anniversary of the giving of the Torah — of Yavneh, of the bases on which deep and lasting cultural change is made.
Rights are not obtained, ethically, at least, on the backs of the rights of others. Think smart, as well as right.