Azarat Yisrael — The Dissenters’ Kotel

Yesterday’s decision by Israel’s government to allocate a section of the Western Wall (Kotel) for egalitarian worship and for use by those women wishing to read Torah in public is on the face of it an historic breakthrough and a victory for religious pluralism.

For the first time the State of Israel has officially recognized the religious needs of non-Orthodox Jews by allocating them space at this holy site. That is an achievement not to be underestimated and one that some insist could have far reaching ramifications for religious pluralism in Israel.

Nevertheless, the decision in practice only formalizes what has in effect already been the situation for a number of years. Indeed, the fact that the charedim are describing the arrangement as “the least bad option” would suggest that it might just be a hollow victory.

Those who have visited the Jerusalem Archeological Park at the Davidson Center will be familiar with the unsightly scaffolding overlooking the Western Wall that was erected there just over two years ago in order to construct a temporary platform for egalitarian worship known as “Azarat Yisrael“.

At the time, Naftali Bennett, Minister of Religions, declared: “Azarat Yisrael is a wonderful thing. It makes unity and peace possible at the Kotel. This is the first time in years that all of the Nation of Israel can come to the Kotel.”

This area, administered by the Masorti Movement, has enabled those in search of an egalitarian service to conduct their prayers without disruption and the interference of intolerant charedi worshippers. “Azarat Yisrael” will now by all reports be upgraded provided, that is, that the government coughs up the funds and implements its decision.

However, Naftali Bennett was not entirely accurate when he stated that “all of the Nation of Israel can come to the Kotel.” because Azarat Yisrael” is in fact separated from the Western Wall Plaza that we all know by means of a ramp that leads up to the Mughrabi Gate and the Temple Mount.

As a result, there will be no physical or eye contact between worshippers at the Kotel Plaza and the enclave for dissenters that will now be constructed on a lower level. (I am not sure that that was quite what the Psalmist intended when he wrote: “Out of the depths I cry out to you, Lord”!)

It is reported that the government ministers responsible for the Ministries of Culture (Miri Regev), Tourism (Yariv Levin) and Absorption (Ze’ev Elkin) have all refused to provide funding for the project from their budgets, which is strange given that the latter two are entrusted with encouraging Jews from overseas — most of whom are Reform and Conservative — to come to Israel. If their refusal to volunteer funds is confirmed, then next time they wish to visit Jewish communities in the Diaspora, they should be shunned.

All of us have to pay taxes, but when it comes to the disbursement of funds, it would appear that not all segments of Israeli society are entitled to equal treatment. As a result, the Jewish Agency, whose funds come primarily from non-Orthodox Jews in North America, will have to meet part of the construction costs involved.

The Book of Psalms describes Jerusalem as “a city united together” (122:3), but unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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