August 25, 2013
An English Kotel Plan, or a Hebrew Kotel Plan?
The Israeli government has done it again. It has confused friends and opponents, and botched a day that was supposed to be about new beginnings and better relations. As far as I can tell, this is not malice, and not an attempt to harm anyone, just the usual lack of apt coordination and proper planning. It is, as we call it here, just plain government “balagan”.
Yesterday, I first revealed the new “platform plan” for the Kotel. This platform was built in haste, and is standing ready for those who wish to have prayers that are egalitarian, open to all, and non-Orthodox not far from the Western Wall. As you can see in the photo, the platform is big – even a little bigger than what I said yesterday. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry says that it can accommodate 450 worshipers, while I wrote yesterday that it was around 300. So, an additional 150 people will be able to “pray freely at the Kotel”, if you choose to believe the Diaspora Ministry.
And why wouldn’t you believe the Ministry? One reason might be, that it speaks in two voices- one in English and the other one in Hebrew. And alarmingly, what one gets in the two very different press releases issued by the office of Minister Naftali Bennett are two very different messages. In English, the new platform is “an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services”. In Hebrew it is “the Bennett compromise for Women of the Wall” and the ultimate solution to a solved problem. In other words: In English one gets the impression that this will be a temporary remedy until a better solution can be found to the problem (the need for a place for progressive and egalitarian prayer), but in Hebrew the Minister gives the impression that this is it. This is the “solution” to another problem (Women of the Wall).
Why the difference between the two releases? That is an easy question to answer: the English release is meant for naïve American Jews, while the Hebrew one, signed by the spokesperson of Bennett’s Orthodox party (Habait Hayehudi) is meant for the minister’s constituency. Apparently, no one thought about the possibility of someone, anyone, reading the two messages and wondering about the differences. But let me tell you this: I can’t even take the credit for being the first one to have noticed these differences in tone and content. Several Americans also noticed it, and they expect clarification. The Prime Minister’s office is also issuing a denial. The problem is that some American leaders no longer know who to believe- Bennet A or Bennet B? The original release, or the later correction?
Now, let's put some things in order, for those who are unfamiliar with the story:
The Israeli government has been busy in recent months trying to find a respectable way of turning the Western Wall into a more inclusive place. The original task was shouldered by Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky, and his plan is the basis for everything that followed it. Sharansky proposed a good plan – at least in my opinion – but one that with time proved hard to implement for many reasons. The PM appointed the Secretary of the Cabinet to propose an executable plan instead, and the platform we see today is one element of this process that isn’t yet complete. Diaspora Affairs Minister Bennett is part of the process since he is, well, in charge of Diaspora affairs, and also because he is the one tasked with writing new legal directives for managing the Kotel. New directives are needed because of a court ruling that essentially ordered the government to let Women of the Wall pray at the site without interruption.
Complicated? Comical? That’s not the end of it. Women of the Wall weren’t able to get what the court ordered they should get because of police feet dragging. Haredi opponents of WOW sent seminary girls to the Wall whenever a WOW prayer was supposed to take place. The girls would fill the women’s plaza and the police would claim that there’s no more room for WOW to pray in. Bennett, both in Hebrew and English, explains that from now on the “existing prayer plaza at the Kotel (north of the Mughrabi Bridge) will receive official recognition as a prayer site to be used solely for Orthodox services”. So obviously, the new platform is where the police are going to send WOW now. No less obviously, WoW reject this arrangement.
All this creates some confusion even among those Jewish leaders that tended to be supportive of the plan. Some, such as WOW leader Anat Hoffman, were quick to reject the new measures. Some, like conservative rabbi Julie Schonfeld, see the “significant steps forward that have been taken” and are waiting with the final verdict for further information to come our way and for the full government plan to be revealed. Schonfeld told me today that there are three areas of equality that needed government attention: physical equality, equality in recognition, and equality in funding. The new platform is an improvement of the “physical space” and should be welcomed as long as it is clear that this is a “temporary improvement” to be followed by more improvements.
Yesterday, like writers often do, I divided the Jewish world into two camps, of supporters and opponents of the new platform. But reality is more complicated than articles. Reform leaders seem to be unenthusiastic about the platform, but are still taking part in the process of looking for compromise. The Conservatives are trying to look at the bright side, but are hardly blind to the downsides of recent developments. The Israeli Conservative movement announced today that it treats the platform as a “trust building measure”. The reasoning for a more positive outlook can’t be easily dismissed: better half than nothing; the government did show seriousness; and – most importantly – even the current plan is a breakthrough. Progressive Jews are getting an official place near the Kotel in which they can start building a much more visible presence in this area.
Of course, trusting the Israeli government can be challenging at times, and trusting Bennett will be even more so following his two press releases. But those involved in the dialogue with Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit were impressed with his honesty and seriousness, and are also impressed with the fact that the PM’s office didn’t hesitate to pour cold water on Bennet’s unintended fire. In fact, many of the participants in the dialogue with the government believed until yesterday that Bennett himself also wants to be pragmatic about the Wall and to look for a solution that works for everyone. So they are waiting for the talks to continue and for a plan to be finalized.