Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

To the GA and Jewish Agency Chair Herzog: New Visions for Unity at the Kotel

The  GA—the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America—is currently holding its annual meeting; this year, in Israel.

High on its agenda is the simmering crisis in Israel-US Jewry’s relations. And high on the list of problems is Netanyahu’s having reneged on the Kotel deal negotiated by his Chief of Staff with the haredi rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, on the one side, and the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall organization, on the other.

The Kotel deal was peddled as a great compromise; Netanyahu’s retreat, under threat by his haredi coalition partners to bring down his government, depicted as betrayal of and  contempt for the religious sensibilities of the vast majority of US Jews with a denominational affiliation. We heard calls to boycott Israel; talk of utter rupture. From Israeli Jews, mostly we heard a yawn, a failure to understand. And yes, snickering about the strange priorities of Diaspora Jews.

But the Kotel deal was no progressive advance in the goal of Jewish unity, of any sense of klal yisrael; quite the contrary. And it would have vastly further empowered a rabbinic establishment that most Israelis revile for its corruption and insatiable encroachment on their lives, the same establishment that anathematizes any but haredi Judaism. Diaspora and Israeli Jews alike were and are not aware of key elements of the deal.

The deal would have changed the status of the Kotel from its official designation as “national holy site” of the Jewish people to official, haredi synagogue. From this place, all non-haredi practice was to be banned on pain of seven years’ imprisonment and heavy fines. In practice, this would have criminalized the only non-haredi prayer practice successfully established at the Kotel—women’s group prayer, which also has Court recognition as legal and as “minhag hamakom,” a “custom of the place.” It would have obliterated the immense accomplishment achieved by women in decades of commitment, accomplishment for women, of course, in our claim to exercise the same options for religious expression at the Kotel that men have had since 1967, but also for the claim that the Kotel does not “belong” to any segment of the Jewish people but to us all (Full disclosure: I am a member in Original Women of the Wall and a veteran of this cause since its inception, thirty years ago). It would have obliterated the profoundly important, Court-declared principle that Jews have multiple prayer customs and that “custom” is an inherently evolving concept and reality, including at the Kotel. If one wished exemplification of “progressive,” this would be it.

In return for ceding not just their own right but that of Jewish women to a place at the Kotel for group prayer, the Reform and Conservative movements were to gain recognition and State funding at Robinson’s Arch; undeniably, historic gains  for them.

It is easy to see how the Kotel deal would have benefited denominational Judaism. But how would it have benefited Judaism, or klal yisrael—the totality of Israel, the people; Jews both in the Diaspora and in Israel, including secular Jews, whom no player in the Kotel negotiations thought to even consider, let alone, accommodate?

The deal would have denominationalized the entire Kotel area, dividing it into dueling plazas, akin to the situation in the Holy Sepulcher, where competing Christian denominations fight over every inch of turf. It would have pit an officially haredi Kotel against an officially progressive Robinsons’ Arch. In the challenge of Anat Hoffman, Director of the Women of the Wall organization and Executive Director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, contemplating the arrangement to come: “May the best plaza win!” This, a vision of Jewish unity? Or even of mature religious behavior?

And what of secular Jews, who once related reverently to the Kotel, secular soldiers willing to sacrifice life and limb for its restoration to Jewish hands in 1967, but who, along with many religious Jews, now shun the place? A place where, but for women’s group prayer, only the haredi notion of “unity” prevails: that is, haredi practice imposed on everyone.

What was self-evidently unifying to all Jews in the Kotel before its appropriation by the haredi establishment was shared past; shared memory; shared hope and yearning, personal and national. A common place of connection. For some, to God. For others, to the people, our history and our hopes. For some, to both.

A Kotel administered as its status declares it to be, as “national holy site”– would do that. What would such administration look like? Here are a number of possibilities.

There could be re-division of the space into three, equal sections: women’s, men’s, and mixed. This would still create the feel of synagogue though it would at least afford secular Jews a space, as well as giving Jews who prefer mixed services a place at the Wall.

Or: there could be designated hours for prayer in the three sections mentioned, above; and times when any dividers between the sections would be removed and the entire plaza opened up, times when no group prayer would be conducted. This would also require removing the massive, metal fence-topped, stone enclosures that the Kotel administration has erected, to no public notice or process, at the rear of the current men’s and women’s sections; ponderous impositions that project the clear message: this is a haredi synagogue. It would restore the Kotel at times to the wide open space it was in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, into which hundreds of thousands of Jews of every kind poured to celebrate and give thanks and revel in the wonder of deliverance from threatened catastrophe and in a felt-miracle.

Or: group prayer could be re-directed permanently to any of the many Orthodox and haredi synagogues nearby; or, for progressive Jews, to synagogue spaces to be created, with the Kotel made permanently into an open plaza for individual meditation. Rather than having the presumption of any form of established prayer, the Kotel would be simply, elegantly, the “national holy site” of the Jewish people.

We badly need such a site. The Kotel absolutely fits the bill. Not in its current configuration, to be sure; nor equally certain, in the hyped, territorial sectarianism that was the Kotel deal.

How to foster klal yisrael in the very process of re-creating a truly national holy site?

Abolish the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the wholly haredi entity that, with the haredi administrator of the Kotel, decides policy there. In its stead, create a body representative of all Jews, half Israeli, half Diaspora; and overall, half women; to deliberate and decide the site’s administration in an open, transparent process. A people’s Sanhedrin, if you will, whose sole directive would be to exemplify in its process, and then transfer onto physical space, mutual respect and accommodation. How better to heal our Israel-Diaspora; our religious-secular; our gendered rifts; the sin’at hinnam, the wanton hatred which, we are taught, was the reason for the Temple’s destruction, than to use the need to create a place of, and for all Jews,as the occasion to model responsible unity?

Rather than rehearse bitter disputes over a policy that was flawed fundamentally, or rail against the current, oppressive reality at the Kotel, it’s time for some new vision.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.
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