The conflict over the egalitarian prayer section on the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, had gained prominence recently, as Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the move to create an egalitarian prayer section at the main part of the wall would be put off for now. Many American Jews took particular offense to this, with groups like the Jewish Agency going so far as to cancel their upcoming dinner with Netanyahu. The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, called it an “unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry,” while Rabbi Philip Scheim, President of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Rabbis, called it “hurtful” and said that Jews in the diaspora feel “disrespected” by Netanyahu. I believe that the majority of Jews, including myself, would indeed support an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. However, before continuing to lash out at this decision, many must understand the complexity of Israeli politics before continuing to attack Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is in a difficult situation. While he, too, would support an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, the reality of Israeli democracy make this harder to implement than some seem to assume. Because of the vibrant nature of Israel’s democracy, many parties representing many diverse groups have seats in the Knesset. This makes it nearly impossible for one party to win complete control, so a governing coalition must be formed of at least 61 members. Currently, Netanyahu’s coalition has 66 seats, including seven from the Shas party, representing mainly religious Sepharadic and Mizrahi Jews, and six for United Torah Judaism, representing mainly Haredis. If Netanyahu chose to let the plan for an egalitarian prayer section continue, he would have been certain to trigger a coalition crisis, potentially collapsing the government and bringing new elections. This would be a disaster for Israel.
A coalition crisis would mean that the progress from the Likud government would be in jeopardy. It would put at risk Netanyahu’s work to modernize the Israeli economy, bring down housing prices and the cost of living, and protect Israel’s security and territorial integrity. It would mean that the reported progress in establishing relations with the Arab world could be put on hold. It would mean risking the collapse of arguably the most nationalist government in Israel’s history. It would mean risking the possibility of having Isaac Herzog and the left in power.
It is easy to sit in America, without the fear of being stabbed or rammed by a car by a terrorist on your way to work, without the worry of economic issues facing Israel, and believe that establishing an egalitarian prayer section is the most important issue facing the Jewish State. Netanyahu is a smart and strategic leader, and he must weigh the options carefully before him. In the end, Netanyahu would like just as much as many of the readers of this article to establish an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. However, when weighing the costs and benefits of such a move, it becomes clear that the potential alternative – a government led by the left – is much worse than a temporary halt to creating the egalitarian prayer section. After all, at the end of the day, Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel, not of world Jewry, and he must commit his focus on what he can best do to serve the people of Israel.
Lastly, it is worth noting that an egalitarian prayer section does exist, at Robinson’s Arch. It is just not where proponents of the egalitarian prayer section want it to be. Leaders of Jewry in the diaspora must be cognizant on the impact their harsh words towards Israel and Netanyahu can have, especially at a time when younger Jews are growing increasingly distanced from Judaism and Israel, and anti-Semitic attacks in the diaspora are on the rise. World Jewry must come together, not divide ourselves further, and instead take time to understand the dilemma that Netanyahu faces. An egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall Plaza will be built, but it will take time and patience.