The Israeli government’s disavowal of the Western Wall plan is a deplorable instance of the Israeli government yielding to forceful religious dictates – a decision harmful to broad groups of Jews whose support for the State of Israel is vital. At the same time, this moment marks a crossroads that can lead to a rethinking of the entire plan.
As someone who grew up in Israel in Orthodox society, and in adulthood found a home in the Reform Movement, I can identify with the Movement’s bold and historic move of placing the ideal of tikkun olam – “repairing the world” in its universalist socio-moral sense – at the heart of Jewish theological thought. The promoters of this worldview were among the leading proponents of the separation between religion and state and their ideas reflect a cautious approach toward the relationship between holiness and place. Here, in its battle against Orthodox hegemony over the Western Wall Plaza, the Reform Movement has ultimately been forced by circumstance to accept many of the theological and political assumptions of that very same hegemonic authority. From this perspective, the blow inflicted on the movement this week, albeit harsh and unfair, provides an opportunity to challenge these assumptions.
The Western Wall plaza is not a neutral place, politically speaking. While no one contests the Jewish connection to the Western Wall, it is important to affirm that its status can only be determined within a comprehensive political agreement with the Palestinians. In the meantime, the Western Wall plaza is one of the sites where the state maximizes its involvement in religious affairs, and where it most strongly manipulates religion for political purposes. The Western Wall plan, through no intention of the Reform Movement and its supporters, fell into this twofold trap by reinforcing the state’s control over religious sites and its policy of handing management over to favored organizations – traditionally, private settler groups – an issue upon which the Reform Movement has refrained from taking a position.
In the current political context, activities aimed at expanding the Western Wall compound above and below ground are an integral part of the government’s efforts, backed by the messianic right wing, to establish facts on the ground to thwart an agreed-upon political resolution and further destabilize relations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. These activities include, inter alia: privatizing archeological excavations in the vicinity of the Western Wall to settler organizations; incessant attempts to undermine the status quo on the Temple Mount; closing off entire compounds to Palestinian movement, and the takeover of Palestinian properties.
It is no accident that the Reform movement’s battle for the Western Wall plan received backing from Temple Mount activists such as Yehuda Glick along with support from Education Minister Naftali Bennett. While some settler groups joined hands with the Haredim against the Reform movement, other members of the messianic right wing supported the plan, and not because of any sudden affection for the Reform Movement but more likely because they had a quid pro quo in mind. It is also true that the Muslim Waqf has not refrained from politically motivated archeological excavations. All of this only exacerbates the unholy tangle of religion and politics in this dense, volatile compound. Any attempt to alter the site in the existing reality, and solely as an internal Jewish matter, is doomed to get ensnared in this unholy web.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position on the Western Wall plan sends a message to the Reform Movement that it does not count in the Israeli political and public realm. The truth is that the presence of an active and influential Reform Movement is crucial for Israeli society, now more than ever. Reform Jewry can and should play an important role in leading a pluralistic religious discourse grounded in principles of social and gender justice and tikkun olam. Such a discourse would recognize the importance of the Western Wall in Jewish tradition and identity, while at the same time treating the site within the context of the larger political reality in which it is centered. The clear moral voice of the Reform Movement will be needed when additional holy sites and Palestinian properties in the Old City and Historic Basin face the danger of being handed over to private settler groups and when the Temple Mount movements escalate pressure to change the status quo. The Reform Movement has a critical role to play in inter-religious dialogue and it can use this crisis as an opportunity to expand and deepen its role as a moral voice on issues impacting all of Jerusalem’s residents.
Yudith Oppenheimer is Executive Director of Ir Amim.