The Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven is committed to pluralism in our community and at the Kotel (Western Wall). On June 29, a letter was sent to the Israeli prime minister and consul general,
co-signed by congregational rabbis.
A sense of unity and jubilation defined the first few weeks following the liberation of the Western Wall during the 1967 Six-Day War, with people gathering in the Old City by the hundreds of thousands to touch the Wall’s ancient stones. Jews of the Diaspora and Israelis cried tears of relief and joy, rejoicing over
Jerusalem’s unification. But the feeling of harmony was fleeting. Dissent emerged as soon as secular Israelis and non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews were excluded as Orthodox authorities took control of the site.
Until 1948, when Jews were expelled from the Old City, the Kotel was a prayer space with no formal
structures in place, and no separation between men and women. If you visit the Jerusalem mayor’s office, you will see historic photos showing mixed gender groups gathered at the Kotel.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, Orthodox religious authorities funded by the Israeli government have controlled customs at the Kotel. In recent years, women were banned from holding Torah scrolls, leading services, wearing tallit or tefillin, or singing out loud at the site. Similarly, mixed gender services were not permitted.
In 2013, following a decades-long advocacy campaign led by Women of the Wall and supported by the Conservative and Reform movements, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky with coming up with a compromise that would enable diverse Jewish practice at the Kotel.
Sharansky’s Kotel proposal kicked off several years of intense negotiations that resulted in a seemingly historic compromise. As a result of the agreement, the Israeli Cabinet approved the proposal in January 2016 in a legally binding government resolution. Among other provisions, the Cabinet agreed to create a formal egalitarian prayer space as part of the overall Kotel area. The Resolution envisioned an upgraded and permanent prayer platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the Robinson’s Arch area at the southern end of the Western Wall, along with a redesign of the approach to both this area and the traditional Kotel plaza and prayer space.
Beyond the success of the plan itself, many hoped that the groundbreaking agreement would have set a precedent, showing that compromise can be reached. The Jewish Federations of North America played a central role in that process, working with Reform and Conservative movements, The Jewish Agency for
Israel, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Western Wall, and the Israeli government to reach an agreement. Negotiations were complicated by the involvement and opinions of other diverse groups, including archaeological authorities, the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities), and even the Jordanian government. The fact that so many disparate groups were able to reach an understanding was seen as a very positive sign.
Nonetheless, the optimism proved to be short-lived,
as implementation of the plan was halted due to
pressure from Israeli Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox politicians and groups. For close to 18 months, the Israeli government avoided moving forward with implementing the resolution while ultra-Orthodox interests looked for ways to overturn the decision. A number of petitions were filed in the Supreme Court (Bagatz) on the issue, including one asking the court to direct the government to implement its own resolution. In September 2016, the Court strongly reprimanded the government for not implementing the deal and in April of this year, the Court ordered the government to respond as to why it had not yet begun implementation. With a Court established deadline of June 26, 2017, ultra-Orthodox groups intensified their efforts to block the deal. At the urging of ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the government voted on June 25, 2017 to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution. The prime minister appointed two government representatives, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, to undertake negotiations toward a new deal.
On June 26, Jewish Federations of North America met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express our communities’ deep disappointment in the suspension of the January 2016 historic decision to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. The Jewish Federation urges community members to voice their concern and commitment to Jewish pluralistic expression by contacting the Israel Consul General at firstname.lastname@example.org or (617) 535-0201.