May 9, 2013
The True State of the Western Wall Compromise
Friday Update: This article was written and published on Thursday. Friday morning, as expected, "Haredi worshippers clashed with police in Jerusalem's Old City... A mass brawl erupted at the site, during which garbage, water and coffee was flung at dozens of Women of the Wall and police forming a human barrier between the female group and the ultra-Orthodox"...
Thousands of female haredi worshipers arrived at the site, heeding the call of community leaders rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Aharon Leib Shteinman who entreated female Ulpan students to hold a mass prayer at the Western Wall on Friday in an attempt to push aside the Women of Wall prayer set for the same time. However, the rabbis stressed there is no need to act provocatively or violently.
Having spent two consecutive Tuesdays in long- and at times trying- Knesset Committee discussions on Women of the Wall and the Sharansky compromise plan, I find myself in a somewhat strange position. Since we already posted a two part dialogue on WOW in recent days I was not going to write even more about it this week. But having read many of the news reports on the above-mentioned committee discussions, and other reports related to recent developments on the Kotel front, I feel obligated to correct some misperceptions and doubtful conclusions drawn by the media. The WOW issue is complicated, and the moving parts are many, so I will focus on some of the main developments and attempt to explain what they mean:
Mira Sucharov reported at the Daily Beast that "Women Of The Wall Reaffirm Support For Sharansky Plan". This isn't exactly true. My friend Sucharov relies in her report on an op-ed penned by WOW's Anat Hoffman in which she wrote about Sharansky that she is "in full support of his efforts" and that she "intends to be a willing and constructive partner". This is tricky language which became more suspicious as I heard Hoffman speak at the Committee two days ago.
She spoke twice. The first time, she sort of said that they support the principles of the plan but then said that she "doesn't yet see it" – namely, she isn't sure what the final Sharansky plan is going to be (hence, she can't fully support it).
In her later comments she was closer to the language of the article – and I don't think this was an accident. I think that's the language she's going to use now in order to still seem supportive but without being completely committed. What Hoffman said at the Knesset session is that she commends the Sharansky "process", but she also said that she's too busy worrying about "now" to be able to give full support for a plan that is about the future. "The full implementation of Sharansky’s plan is at the moment still an imaginary scenario", she said. Simply put: Hoffman – following the court decision – took at least one step backwards in her support. This isn't surprising, as the court put more cards in her hands. Her renewed hesitation to fully embrace the plan was also reflected in the comments made by Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement.
Kariv is smart and was the only one to quickly notice that reports about the Weinstein-Bennet arrangement were far from getting the story right. For those unfamiliar with the details: Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided that the state will not appeal the District Court’s ruling that undermined the prohibition against non-strict-Orthodox prayer at the Wall. Instead of appealing the ruling, Weinstein dropped the ball at Minister Naftali Bennet's doorstep. Bennet, according to reports (this one is from Haaretz) "plans to present new regulations for Jewish holy places that could restrict the right of Women of the Wall to pray as they see fit in the future".
Kariv noticed what most of the others didn't: Bennet, the minister of religious affairs, can't make new regulations without the signature of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. For her to sign regulations that "restrict the right of Women of the Wall" isn't going to be easy. And remember: without new regulations and with no legal appeal, the current state of affairs is pretty clear: WOW can have their way at the Wall. Not fully – but not far from it.
Not fully, because WOW still can't pray at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, as the Knesset discussion revealed. The representative of the police explained that Talit and Tefillin for women will be tolerated under the current interpretation of the law, but bringing a Torah is still forbidden. Of course, WOW can demand to get one of the many scrolls available for visitors at the Kotel – and of course, they aren't likely to get one from the Kotel's rabbi – and they can then appeal to the court and ask that the rabbi will be forced to give WOW a scroll for the prayer, or that the police will be forced to let them in with their own scroll – I believe that that's an easily winnable case. In the meantime, though, WOW agreed to conduct this months' prayer (tomorrow) without a scroll. They decided this at the request of Minister Bennet – the first Minister of Religious Affairs ever to invite WOW for a conversation.
But that WOW can have their way isn't the end of this story. That's why Adam Chandler of Tablet was wrong to argue that "the court ruling obviated the immediate need for compromise when public attention surrounding the issue was at its zenith". The ruling might have made the compromise less likely but didn't "obviate" the need. Why it is still necessary? Because the ruling merely solved the WOW problem, and the Sharansky plan is much more ambitious in scope – it is supposed to give space and voice to Jews who want to pray in mixed and in egalitarian minyans, to have family Bar and Bat Mitzvah's, and to have an area that isn't under the supervision of an Orthodox rabbi. That's probably one of the reasons why rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Reform movement endorsed the Sharansky plan even after the court's decision. For the Reform and the Conservative movements an abandonment of the plan would be a missed opportunity for something much greater than just having permission for WOW prayer at the Wall.
What one could see at the Knesset is fairly broad political support in Israel for the Sharansky plan. Three obstacles could still halt it: the objections of archeologists; the possible objection of Jordan and the Palestinians; and a decision by one of the two rival parties – progressive Jews on one side and haredis on the other – that they would rather have a war over the Kotel than accept a compromise.
The first test of the post-ruling era is tomorrow, Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan. That many WOW supporters are going to come to celebrate is no surprise and not very significant. The real test for WOW will come later, when public interest is low and attention is someplace else. The more interesting question is whether many Haredis will come, and how they will behave if they do. There's a possibility that Haredis aren't as interested in having a fight as their representatives try to lead us to believe with their threats. There's a chance that they've realized that with every battle they lose ground and that maybe it's time for them to just let these women do as they please for two hours a month. Hopefully, there will be no violence. Hopefully, the police will be ready to do what it takes to preserve the peace and the ruling. Hopefully, a quiet prayer won't make us think that the need for a new plan for the management of the Kotel is no longer necessary.