Deal on Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall in Danger

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on March 21, 2016

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Many Jews around the world were immensely cheered by the decision by the Israeli government in February to create an enhanced egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where men and women could worship together free of the controls and limitations imposed by Israel’s orthodox rabbinate.

Anat Hoffman, a leader of Women of the Wall, which has campaigned and battled for years for this breakthrough, was in Washington DC this week, we thought to celebrate this achievement. A gathering at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue organized by the New Israel Fund event began with a champagne toast. But then Hoffman punctured the celebration.

The agreement is in danger, she said, and it looks as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may very well not honor it.

The chief rabbi for the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who accepted the agreement, has now suddenly retracted his support and has called on the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties (which had also backed it) to pass a law repealing it.

This is the result of a horrible smear campaign mounted by forces of intolerance in Israel. It is backed by those who have profited for decades from the Orthodox monopoly over religious practice – which includes weddings, divorces and burials – and who now fear that their monopoly might be threatened.

Posters have gone up all over Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox communities condemning the Conservative and Reform Jews as the “spawn of Satan.” According to Hoffman, Netanyahu is buckling under the pressure.

The government is now asking for a 90-day extension before formally signing the agreement – and Hoffman bluntly predicted that it would not be signed unless there was a massive outcry from world Jewry.“I can’t toast this agreement today,” Hoffman said. “I can’t see it happening.”

At the time that the agreement was reached, J Street issued a statement commending the Israeli government and noting that the decision was also “an important step toward recognition of the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative movements as representatives of millions of North American Jews.”

Now it’s time for us to raise our voices and defend this important breakthrough. We simply can’t allow the forces of intolerance to win yet again in Israel.

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner