Jewish Journal


The Real Kotel Negotiation: Between Reforms and Conservatives

by Shmuel Rosner

September 9, 2013 | 8:07 am

Early morning prayer at the Western Wall ahead
of Yom Kippur, Photo by Reuters/Darren Whiteside

I promised a while ago to revisit the ongoing Kotel controversy following the abrupt building of the new prayer platform – opponents call it  the “sun deck” – by Minister Naftali Bennett. It took some time not because there's a lack of interest- I get phone calls on this matter on a daily basis, and I was interviewed this morning for a story on Channel 2 News about Women of the Wall- but because of other pressing matters: Syria, possible war, chemical weapons, gas masks and the like. With every regional development I wake up in the morning thinking that the Western Wall can wait another day. But it can’t really, can it? We have to think about things– big and small– simultaneously. So today, if the world doesn’t turn upside down, we are back at the Kotel, just where we left it about two weeks ago:

The platform was built as a “temporary” measure – that’s a promise made by Minister Bennett.

Women of the Wall aren’t happy: they understand that the platform is a first step toward finding a solution for everybody, except themselves.

Jewish groups have decided to let go of this matter- some, like the Conservative movement, enthusiastically, while others, like the Reform movement, more reluctantly.

Minister Bennett made his promise to move forward with the Sharansky plan two days after making a blunder and distorting his own intentions for the platform (or, possibly, telling the truth and later regretting telling it, or, a third possibility, telling the truth and later regretting the truth – note the differences between options two and three). His letter to Jews around the world stated: “It is important to stress that the new platform is temporary. I remain committed to the government’s efforts to advance the ‘Sharansky Plan’ as well as to continuing a dialogue with representatives from all religious movements and all parts of the Jewish nation”.

Whether you believe him or you don’t is beside the point. The Bennett platform is no longer the story – the story is the 'Mandelblit committee' plan (Mandelblit - as in Avichai Mandelblit, secretary of the Israeli cabinet; plan – as in the planning of Israel’s next move).

Mandelblit was about to publicize his plan when the Bennet platform stirred the pot and made him rethink some of its components. Progressive Jewish leaders in Israel and abroad told him that he needs to have more rounds of talks before the final verdict, and a similar message was conveyed by Israeli diplomats in the US. Both Mandelblit and Bennett had conversations with some Jewish leaders, among them rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Rick Jacobs (Conservative and Reform), in an attempt to calm things down. Mandelblit decided to wait for the holiday season to pass and to have more consultations (Rabbi Jacobs and Mandelblit are supposed to meet this week in Israel) before his plan is released to the public.

One might think that negotiations between the Jewish progressives and the government of Israel are the main event at this point. Not true: it is the negotiations between the two main wings of progressive Judaism – the Conservative and the Reform – that will have the most impact on the Mandelblit program. If these two movements can find enough common ground to come up with a unified message to the government, they are likely to get their way (if they don’t overstep certain boundaries). If they split up – if they are as divided as they seemed to be two weeks ago – the government will have more room to maneuver.

Naturally, the leaders of the two wings are trying to downplay their disparities, but these are real and at times significant. The Conservative movement sees the platform as real progress, and is happy to make use of it and to try to turn it into a place of egalitarian and tolerant prayer. The Reform movement looks at the platform and sees the beginning of the end of the Sharansky compromise. It is the first step – some of them suspect – of a reverse turn that the government is taking, the first step away from putting an end to Orthodox jurisdiction over the most sacred Jewish site. So while both movements were careful in the way they reacted to the Bennet platform – the Conservatives were careful not to blatantly abandon the larger causes, and the Reforms were careful not to disparage the achievement of having a tolerant prayer area – the gap was there, and was visible to experienced observers and discreetly acknowledged by some of the participants as well.

Hence a sort of negotiation ensued (one of my sources vehemently opposed “negotiation” and preferred calling it an “ongoing dialogue”). The Reforms and Conservatives are looking for ways to come up with red lines on which they can all agree. One achievement that didn’t require much talk: They both agreed already, that rushing to release the Mandelblit report would not be wise. Another one that was effortless: The Israeli government has already agreed to publically state that the platform is temporary. But some issues are trickier: the Reforms want a time table for the implementation of the full Sharansky plan, while the Conservatives don’t find the stopwatch necessary as long as progress is made.

And there are more issues to be discussed: can the two movements demand that changes to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation be made promptly, demonstrating that the platform is the first step in the long way to giving them an equal role in the management of the site? Will the government fulfill the promise given in the Sharansky plan to make a clear distinction between the management of the Orthodox section of the Western Wall (which will continue to be managed by the Kotel rabbi) and the management of public spaces such as the public plaza?

To be blunt: the Women of the Wall are no longer the big cause for either one of the movements (if they ever were the big cause). Both would sacrifice the Women if necessary – that is, they would both agree that WOW's cause (to pray as they wish at the women’s plaza) could be sidestepped in lieu of larger achievements. But what price the government should pay for the Women to be discarded is still being debated. The nature of this price is the essence of the Conservative-Reform dialogue, and this dialogue is an essential part of of the progressives-Mandelblit dialogue. So the Western Wall debate isn't over, it’s just taking a short rest until the next move.

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