Jewish Journal


April 10, 2013

Victory at the Wall?


Anat Hoffman

Anat Hoffman

There comes a time in any successful movement for change or reform for cashing in, and it is often a time of crisis. Getting so close to achieving a goal, one has to struggle with two challenges: the temptation to overreach — and pass on a deal that might be the best realistic one — and the difficulty of having to accept the less glorious (and more mundane) missions of a reformed reality. While there are many famous examples of reformers seizing the moment, there are just as many examples of ones who were unable to make the switch. It is not always easy to identify the right moment to cash in. It also isn’t easy to arrive at the right decision, as in most cases the cashing in also involves some measure of compromise, of having to abandon the dream of an ideal-world victory for a more earthly real-world one.

Activist Anat Hoffman and her Women of the Wall friends might be on the verge of facing such a dilemma — they might be on the verge of being able to declare victory and becoming heroes of the Jewish world. That is, if they correctly identify the moment for cashing in, which is very possibly coming their way soon, and if they are strong enough to survive the temptation to overreach and the difficulty of having to abandon the addictive habit of battling.

Last week, the WOW controversy was in the news again, following a dumb announcement that women who say Kaddish near the Kotel will be arrested. As annoying as it was, the short Kaddish controversy (no one is going to get arrested) was barely a side show to the ongoing discussion aimed at reaching a solution for the Kotel issue.

This discussion, as I’ve learned in recent days, is rapidly approaching its crescendo. The government of Israel will be facing its moment of truth and will have to clearly demonstrate its seriousness. The head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, was asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find an acceptable offer, and Sharansky, it seems, is getting there. He has had many meetings concerning this issue in recent months and will have more in this coming week. Rabbis, heads of movements, government officials were all in consultation with him. I spoke with some of them and they are under the impression that it’s coming.

What they are saying is that Sharansky will probably suggest making a significant investment in building a “progressive” prayer section on the southern side of the Western Wall. This side of the Wall will not be under Orthodox-rabbinical jurisdiction. It will be a place where Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews will be able to practice Judaism the way they practice it in their synagogues and temples. It will be a place where men and women could pray together, where bar and bat mitzvahs could be celebrated without having to conform to the interpretation of Orthodox rabbis. It will be a Jewish startup: the Kotel — reinvented and rejuvenated. It will be a victory.

Like most victories, it will not be a perfect one, not in the ideal-world sense. It will involve compromise. Some of the Orthodox leaders are also going to declare victory — their Kotel was “saved.” They are going to want the Jewish world to believe that the women were pushed away to Robinson’s Arch, which is not the Western Wall. They are going to dismiss the other Kotel as less significant. So a choice will have to be made by Hoffman, her good friends at WOW, and their many supporters in the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and abroad: They can validate the Orthodox claim by rejecting victory and continuing to battle, or they can embrace victory and make the southern Wall so lively and so meaningful that — at some point — even the most zealot Orthodox would no longer be able to dismiss it.

Of course, before they embrace any deal, they’d have to make sure that there’s an actual deal on the table. They’d have to look for the details: the funding of the Kotel can’t all remain in Orthodox hands; the entrance to the Kotel has to be designed in a way that makes it clear that the southern section is not inferior to the northern section; I would also expect a clear message from the prime minister, the education minister and the minister in charge of religious services saying that they all recognize that the Kotel is being expanded, and that the expansion is a place of religion, not a tourist attraction; most important, I’d like schools to be able to choose the southern section for their mandatory visits. There is no better indication that a state is serious about something than adding this something into the school curriculum.

If all this happens, though, and the conversations I’ve had indicate that there’s a good chance that it will, the Women of the Wall, and all the friends and supporters of Women of the Wall (I count myself as one of them) will soon be facing their moment of truth. If they insist on an ideal-world victory, this struggle is not nearly over. Israel is not an ideal world (not even close). But if they believe that the significance of a Jewish site is determined by where Jews actually go, what they need to do after winning this battle is move on to the next step. They should work to make the Kotel a more welcoming place for Jews.

I hope Sharansky can put together a deal that is acceptable to all the reasonable people involved; I hope that the government will have the backbone to support it; and I hope to see the reformers cashing in, becoming heroes and rejoicing in having won a just battle. 

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

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