It is difficult to mourn something that never was. But here I am, considering with disappointment the potential lost, the “dream deferred,” in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Western Wall Agreement.
This week marks three years since the Government of Israel voted 15-5 in favor of executing the “Kotel Agreement” which was slated to transform the Southern Plaza of the Western Wall into a truly dignified and fully accessible place of prayer for most of world Jewry. This Agreement, the product of tireless deliberations and blueprints, provided a sustainable solution for Jews from Israel and abroad who had previously been denied full religious freedom at the Western Wall. Regulations put in place by the ultra-Orthodox, male-dominated managerial body of the Kotel prohibits any practices that defy their narrow interpretations of what constitutes acceptable “local custom.”
The agreement “expanded the pie,” maintaining the existing authority structure over the main plaza, while offering the opportunity for those who wish to hold a non-traditional ceremony – and for women like us, who want to pray out loud with a Torah scroll and ritual objects – to do so at a site that was, until now, an abandoned site of archaeological ruins.
This agreement gave us hope — the possibility that Israel’s political authorities finally recognized the diversity of Jewish practice and not only that of the ultra-Orthodox. While Women of the Wall has always stood steadfast for the right of all women to pray freely in the women’s section of the Western Wall, we welcomed the opportunity to move forward a peaceful solution that would appease all. Perhaps compromise truly was within reach.
However, our enthusiasm faded with the freezing of the Agreement in June 2017 when the desired victory for pluralism escaped our grasp. Political pressure from ultra-Orthodox factions took precedence for PM Netanyahu, who ignored the demands of Israeli and international Jewry for a legitimate alternative prayer space. Although the Government approved the Agreement, Netanyahu retracted his support, cancelling the plan.
PM Netanyahu then tried to provide reassurance with the concession of a minimal renovation of the Southern Plaza – but this promise too was blocked when the Jerusalem District Committee rejected the construction plan. Thus, a meaningful and sustainable path toward equality was laid to rest, much to our dismay. We wanted to believe in the power of dialogue, in a vision of forward movement. And we were left wanting.
Yet the proverbial glass, despite being half-empty, still overflows. While the Agreement remains a dream for the future, we appreciate each victory along our present path. For example, after six months of deliberations, the Jerusalem Municipality finally approved WOW’s public tefillin booth for WOW’s participation in the World Wide Wrap on Sunday, February 3. Further, on February 6, we will welcome Rosh Hodesh Adar I with the WOW community at the Western Wall. And our voices will be heard even more powerfully when we celebrate WOW’s 30th Anniversary, Rosh Hodesh Adar II, and International Women’s Day, on March 7-9.
Long-term solutions to the Western Wall conflict, which demand dialogue and compromise between parties, are still to be found. However, Women of the Wall’s determination to stand proudly for equality and pluralism is something we can count on. Our ongoing work spreads access to Jewish practice, by inviting women to join in with their own voices. While the constraints surrounding us present consistent challenges, our mission to enrich the landscape of Jewish life for all carries us through each moment of difficulty.
The journey is long and often undefined. But our tenacity is certain and our collective resilience is undefeatable. And with our dedicated supporters in step with us, we will not veer from the course towards a better, more tolerant future for all Jews.