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April 10, 2013

Western wall compromise raises hopes, but still faces obstacles

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/western_wall_compromise_raises_hopes_but_still_faces_obstacles

Women praying at the Western Wall, 2010. (Meaghan O'Neill)

Women praying at the Western Wall, 2010. (Meaghan O'Neill)

Natan Sharansky presented what could be a historic proposal to add a space for egalitarian prayer to the Western Wall on Tuesday.

Israeli religious pluralism activists, however, fear that the proposal will take years to implement and could face roadblocks that prevent it from coming to fruition.

The proposal, first reported by the Forward, would expand the currnet Western Wall Plaza, currently divided into men’s and women’s sections, to allow a space where men and women can pray together. The plaza would expand to include Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Wall but currently divided from it by a bridge. Egalitarian prayer is currently allowed at the site.

The proposal was approved by American representatives of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry, and Sharansky will present it to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his return this week to Israel.

Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, was asked last year by Netanyahu to formulate a plan to change prayer regulations at the Wall. The request came after rising calls among Conservative and Reform Jews to allow for non-Orthodox prayer in the plaza and several high-profile arrests of female activists at the Wall.

Sharansky’s plan, however, may encounter obstacles from the Israeli government, as well as from the Islamic Waqf, which administers Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount.

“I think it’s very ambitious,” said Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, which holds monthly women’s prayer services at the Wall. “We haven’t seen the plan, but we’re talking about a very ambitious endeavor that will take a long time to implement."

In order to allow for egalitarian prayer at the Wall, the Israeli government will have to change a 1981 ordinance that prohibits any Jewish practice which deviates from “local custom.” Local custom at the Wall is determined by Western Wall Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowitz, a haredi Orthodox leader who has previously opposed any change to the status quo.

The current ordinance has led to members of Women of the Wall being arrested and detained by police for praying at the wall and wearing prayer shawls. Sachs is concerned that until the plan is implemented, her group will continue to face arrests and detentions.

Rabinowitz, in a statement, offered approval for Sharansky’s plan in order to stop the Wall from “becoming a battlefield between one group of extremists and another.” Liberal activists, however, think the battle will continue.

“Sharansky means well and clearly his attempt to bring about a peaceful compromise is praiseworthy,” said Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush, a religious plurialism nonprofit. “But it will take many years in which the conflict will continue because the Women of the Wall will insist on their right to maintain their practices.”

At the moment, it's unclear whether Israel’s governing coalition will approve a change to the ordinance that allows for the new prayer section.  It's also unclear that, should such a section be created, whose authority it would fall under. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government-funded body run by Rabinowitz, controls the plaza now, but Rabinowitz has been hostile to egalitarian groups. And because Robinson’s Arch is an archaeological site, construction there could take months to be approved.

]The biggest obstacle to the plan, however, may come from the Waqf. The Waqf has previously opposed Israeli construction at the Temple Mount, protesting Israel’s right to make decisions there because it is located in eastern Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital.

In 2011, the Waqf fiercely opposed Israel’s closing of the Mughrabi Bridge, which provided an entrance to the Temple Mount for Muslim worshippers. The Mughrabi Bridge cuts between the current plaza and Robinson’s Arch, and would have to be moved to accommodate Sharansky’s plan.

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