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If the new Kotel Plaza remains empty, don’t come asking for more

by Shmuel Rosner

October 21, 2013 | 8:06 am

The site of the Azarat Israel platform at the
Western Wall in Jerusalem

In December of 2012, just ten months ago - but ten months which seem almost like an eternity - I wrote about “the four options” from which “Women of the Wall and their supporters” would eventually have to choose. This was before the Sharansky plan, before the Mandelblit committee, before the talks and the twists and turns, before the Knesset battles – but even then it was already clear that something has to change at the Western Wall. The suggestion I argued for then- “Take the ‘other’ Kotel and, with the assistance of Diaspora Jewry, make it the better place to go to”- is the topic of this article too.

We shall begin with an update for those of you who do not follow the news from the Kotel on a daily basis. A new platform was built and is functioning as the "third plaza" – Azarat Israel – on the southern side of the Mugrabi Gate. Women of the Wall decided, not without debate (some of them aren't willing to abide by the board's decision), to pray at this newly created egalitarian place of prayer. The Conservative movement accepted the new area as a proper solution to Kotel contentions, and the Reform movement, while initially less enthusiastic and more suspicious of it, is also coming around to the idea. To put it simply: the new platform is currently the only game in town.

The debate about the meaning of it all may continue: does it mean that the Orthodox won the battle (they were able to push WOW and all other non-Orthodox factions to a separate location, while retaining control over all of the traditional Kotel)? Or maybe the non-Orthodox won this battle (for the first time the state of Israel is building and maintaining a section at the holiest of places for non-Orthodox Jews)? Both sides have legitimate claims to victory, and that's possibly a good thing and a sign that the Kotel has not become a zero sum game.

Whoever is “the winner”, such debates is no longer very interesting. Win or lose, there is a new plaza to think about, with which to prove that the effort – the fight, the negotiation– was worth it. If the plaza becomes a viable place of Jewish practice and celebration, further claims made by non-Orthodox Jews in Israel (or Orthodox, but not by the Israeli rabbinate’s standards) would be more easily justified and marketed. If, however, the plaza becomes a white elephant, a sad and empty platform, barely used, barely serves anyone, a tombstone of Jewish discontent – then tough questions would have to be raised when the next battle is waged for equal rights for non-Orthodox practice. True, equality is something that we should always strive for. But in the practical world in which we live, such battles and decisions are made by political leaders, and political leaders don't like wasting time and political capital on a cause in which few people have interest.

I'm writing this article because thus far, the signs aren't encouraging. The attendance at the new plaza is far from being impressive, and visitors to the Western wall usually see it empty, or nearly empty. Of course, there is a legitimate point to be made that the access is still not very convenient, that a real measurement of the plaza's efficacy can only take place when the public is able to reach the new plaza through the entrance to the Kotel. The government of Israel, when Cabinet Secretary Mandelblit finalizes his plan, still needs to take care of the access issue. Still, the fact that the plaza is not livelier is already troubling. It should be troubling to the people that supported the Sharansky plan, and it is in fact troubling to some Israeli leaders who invested in making this compromise work.

I hear that within the Jewish Agency there are whispers of disappointment from the lack of energy on the part of the "progressive movements". They don't seem to be grabbing the opportunity with both hands, they don't look like they're going to invest the funds, the creativity, and the manpower that are needed. There will be no "stage B" to the plan if the plaza remains empty, an Israeli official told me recently – namely, no upgrade of the plaza in the future. It is a reasonable position: why upgrade something for which there's no need?

I hear similar tunes from people working with Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennet. The minister, a member of an Orthodox party, a politician with a mostly Orthodox constituency, took some risks by taking a decision to converse with Reform and Conservative leaders and attempting to accommodate their needs. He took some risks by being the first Minister of Religious Affairs to have a meeting with Women of the Wall. All this for what- To see his platform serving no one?

Some of Bennet's people are trying to actively nudge the "movements" – Conservative and Reform – to start moving. A meeting was scheduled for the coming days, in which the issue will surely be raised. Yet it isn't always clear to the Israeli government who's in charge and who's holding whom back. Will the North American leadership of the movements take up the gauntlet? Should it be a project managed by Israelis for Israelis? Can someone get more schools to visit this new site, more Birthright groups, can anyone convince Israeli celebrities to have their offsprings’ Bar-Mitzvahs at this site, and have it publicized to attract other Israelis? There's a need for a campaign, for marketing. But the people that not long ago were more than ready to wage a battle over the Kotel seem less enthusiastic about building something new then they were about destroying the outdated arrangement of the past.

Last April, just before Sharansky made his compromise plan known, I wrote an article that was somewhat controversial. The headline was "Anat Hoffman Might Be on the Verge of Becoming a Jewish Hero", and in it I argued that "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".

When I wrote these words more than half a year ago, my goal was to convince Hoffman and her friends to take the good deal that was offered by Sharansky – which they eventually did (at least most of them). Of course, the parameters of the deal have changed along the way, but it still stands. And now the needed move from "glorious" to "mundane" is not about accepting an imperfect deal, but rather about making it successful. A movement of resistance must become one of routine management. 

In the Israeli government, some officials get the feeling that they live in a world turned upside down: they feel that they care more than the progressives about the eventual success or failure of the new enterprise, and they don't quite understand why. They are willing to prompt the Jewish world into action, and are even willing to give some material assistance to those who are willing to answer the call for action. But I don't think that they want to become the operational salespersons of the new plaza. Someone needs to sell this product to the Jewish public – Israeli and non-Israeli. And if it's not sold, the Israeli establishment might come to the conclusion that there are no buyers.

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