Regev Responds

A current personal perspective

The Kotel controversy

Many are following the twists and turns of the Kotel controversy with great interest and often anxiety. While grateful to the Jewish Week for featuring my take on the current state of the controversy, I feel that further contextualization and explanation is needed beyond the quotes that were reported.

From the Jewish Week: [link]

    As Reform and Conservative Jews here step up their battle with the Israeli government over the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, a rift has developed about tactics going forward.

    The split — abandon the Kotel fight and focus on other key issues or dig in and continue the push toward prayer for all at Judaism’s holiest site — came as Reform and Conservative leaders were in Jerusalem this week absorbing a body blow. The government, they were told by the minister appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a solution to the Kotel controversy, would not implement two of the three parts of the January 2016 agreement that would pave the way for an upgrading and revamping of an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall.

    With the leaders feeling a sense of betrayal, the CEO of an Israeli group advocating for religious pluralism believes the issue is dead and that it is time to move on.

    Read More


Many are following the twists and turns of the Kotel controversy with great interest and often anxiety. While grateful to the Jewish Week for featuring my take on the current state of the controversy, I feel that further contextualization and explanation is needed beyond the quotes that were reported.

Let me start by emphasizing my basic stand:

  1. I am fervently in support of the right of the Women of the Wall (WOW) and the non-Orthodox movements that want to hold egalitarian services at the Kotel, which has been hallowed by centuries of Jewish spiritual yearning.
  2. I support their battle to gain equal access to prayer at this sanctified site, as well as the pressure that has been generated internationally to overcome the politically motivated exclusion of non-Orthodox worshippers from doing so.
  3. I was a minority of one in support of the demand of the Women of the Wall back in 1988 during the time of the Ne'eman Commission (which I served on, representing the Reform movement) when it took up the Kotel controversy and recommended the Robinson's Arch area as the place where the WOW should be relegated to.
  4. The issue is far more complex than many perceive it to be. We tried to point this out shortly after the historic agreement was announced. I urge you to read the different angles of the issue. I would like to point out, for instance, that the compromise created a split within WOW - a group left the organization and named themselves the "Original WOW" because they refused to accept that they would not be allowed to pray *as women* along with the rest of the Jewish worshippers in the traditional Kotel area. There have been statements made by the WOW over time, especially when the idea of the Robinson's Arch was announced in its current iteration by Natan Sharansky, as well as following Judge Sobel's ruling in the Jerusalem District Court, which indicate that they also resent the Robinson's Arch alternative. The nature of the compromise is based on the long since discredited notion of "separate but equal".
  5. When viewing the conduct and focus of the relevant parties over the course of the last 4+ years, what clearly emerges is that the battle over the Kotel agreement became the single most "invested" advocacy issue between the non-Orthodox and the Israeli government. Moreover, since the last "Who is a Jew?" battle over the Rotem Bill in the mid-2000's, there has not been a topic involving religious pluralism, freedom, and equality, in which so much time, energy, and resources were invested in pursuing.
  6. As I indicated in my comments to the Jewish Week I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu was sincere in his desire to see the agreement implemented. For him, as a veteran political meister, he saw this as a win-win. The agreement was based on taking nothing away from the Orthodox establishment, keeping the WOW and non-Orthodox outside the traditional Kotel area, and -also- gaining many brownie points with the leadership of Diaspora Jewry, including the Federation world, for being attentive to the demands for greater religious pluralism and accommodation of the non-Orthodox movements. The agreement stipulated greater powers for the Chief Rabbinate to dictate the conduct at the traditional Kotel area. It involved new arrangements in the Robinson's Arch area, which has hitherto never been under the authority of the Rabbinate, nor served as an open public worship site, but rather as an archaeological garden. I should note that when, back in the 90's, the idea of Robinson's Arch came up as a solution for the WOW and the non-Orthodox movements, arguing that "after all, it's the same Wall," my response was that if it is indeed "the same Wall," and it makes no difference where groups pray along the Wall, then why don't we alternate with the Orthodox between these two sections of the Wall? This was of course, rhetorical on my part because nobody then (and possibly very few now) view it as one and "the same Wall." We ought to remember that "the Wall" is not the Wall of the ancient Temple, but rather a retaining wall, which was not part of the Temple structure. The significance of the Wall is not, therefore, based on it being a remnant of the ancient Temple, but rather the emotional and historical ethos that evolved around it over the centuries, which zoomed in on the current traditional area of the Wall. This visual spread throughout the Jewish world via lithographs, old photos, Betzalel judaica art, and other depictions. This is the reason that the religious establishment in Israel never made a serious claim for this part of the Wall before -and- why there was no real objection to placing it under the authority of the Antiquities Authority. In this regard, Netanyahu had no problem giving it away to the WOW and the non-Orthodox, and in the course of doing so, showed very little regard for the adamant protest of the Archaeological world.
  7. With all of Netanyahu's political mastery, he has his limitations too; as do the sophisticated and experienced leaders of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel (Deri, Litzman, and Gafni), who gave their tacit approval to the compromise that was worked out. None of whom anticipated the avalanche, which ensued in key circles of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli community. The avalanche was carried out by the online ultra-Orthodox new media, often sensational, and relatively free, as well as disgruntled Ashkenazi and Sephardi senior rabbinic figures in the ultra-Orthodox world with bones to pick with the leadership of their respective camps. They used the Kotel as a launching point to further discredit that leadership. Also, the Chief Rabbis were kept out of the negotiations held primarily with Rabbi Rabinowitz (the Kotel rabbi) under the assumption that he would clear the details with the Chief Rabbis. The Chief Rabbis felt excluded and insulted. They harbored long held venomous feelings towards the non-Orthodox movements, and they were quick to not only add oil to the fire, but to also launch a legal battle against the agreement that had been announced. What started out, from the Prime Minister's perspective, as a win-win situation ended up (at that point at least) becoming a lose-lose situation. When that happened, Netanyahu focused on cutting his losses and "to hell" with what is right and just. The key now was damage control and to fight the PR battle.
  8. The non-Orthodox movements found themselves in a unenviable situation, having announced a historic victory when the agreement was reached. They were publicly humiliated by the summary dismissal of all of the key hard-won benefits, which the agreement held in store for them. They were not alone. The leadership of the Jewish Federations and the Jewish Agency (mostly Natan Sharansky), were snubbed, for the timing of announcing the suspension of the Kotel agreement was just when the Jewish Agency leadership was about to start its deliberations in Jerusalem. The suspension was done during the course of a Cabinet meeting, which Sharansky was invited to attend on another matter, but Netanyahu didn't bother to let him know that the meeting would feature the dumping of the Kotel deal, which Sharansky was enlisted by Netanyahu to orchestrate. The timing had to do with the fear of the imminent Supreme Court deliberations on petitions involving the Kotel and the violent pressure of the ultra-Orthodox parties - both regarding the Kotel - and regarding the Conversion Bill - and further involving the Shabbat controversy in Tel Aviv and beyond. With that kind of pressure, and with explicit threats to bring his government down, Netanyahu's choice was painful, but expected. He made it clear on a number of occasions that as much as he was committed to seeing the agreement through, he would not let his government fall over the Kotel. I would not venture to suggest whether this stand based on his conviction that Israel's security and well-being would be at stake if his government were to crumble, or whether it was motivated by narrower political interests. Whatever the case, the bottom line remains the same - at this point, while this is the make-up of Netanyahu's coalition - he will not allow the agreement to be fully implemented.
  9. Unlike what was written in the Jewish Week article, the state did respond to the questions that the Court presented to it in the pending petition regarding the Kotel. In its Sept. 19, 2017 response, the state representatives justified the right of the government to change its decisions when circumstances change. It emphasized that it is working to improve the conditions of the site for egalitarian and women's worship services with great expenditure, and that in its view, the Court does not have the authority to force the state to carry out the agreement. It's difficult to tell how the Court will deal with these petitions (to which we at Hiddush are also a party) because they raise complex legal questions, and the Court is not eager to deepen its involvement in this political minefield. My assessment is that under the current political conditions and so long as the governmental coalition does not change, there is no chance that Netanyahu will change his position. Therefore the next moves of the non-Orthodox movements and the Jewish leadership have to take into consideration this possibility as having a high likelihood. This does not mean that the matter of egalitarian services at the Wall or women's services at the Wall is "dead," and there is no reason why it should not be brought back when the political reality changes. Moreover, even in the absence of the ability to overturn the government decision to suspend the agreement, it does not mean that one should remove the topic from the agenda. The opposite is true. However, what needs to be considered is - what is the right strategy for this time?
  10. The mention of the important ruling of the Supreme Court on the question of access to Israel's publicly funded and operated ritual baths for the purposes of non-Orthodox conversions is, indeed, relevant. However, it proves my point, I believe. The ruling was handed down about a month after the Kotel agreement was publicized, but unlike the matter of the Kotel, it did not involve agreement and compromise, aimed at distancing the non-Orthodox communities from the traditional Kotel site, which is under Orthodox control. Rather it was the opposite – it aimed to force the religious councils that operate the mikvaot under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate, in spite of the strong objection on the part of the government and the Rabbinate, to open their gates for non-Orthodox converts. And -indeed- this ruling was met not only with vehement verbal assault by ultra-Orthodox spokespersons, but also a legislative initiative launched by the Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee MK Rabbi Gafni, which nullified, in effect, the Court ruling subject to the construction of a few ritual baths by the Jewish Agency, which would be open for non-Orthodox converts to immerse in. Namely, in the current government, it's the ultra-Orthodox politicians who call the shots and dictate the rules, and there is no wonder that these politicians who consented to the Kotel agreement and then retracted, find Netanyahu saying AMEN to their new demands.
  11. The question is therefore what should be done now (and this is a question that goes beyond what was desirable to do at the outset). In my assessment, under the circumstances, where the majority of the Israeli Jewish public supports advancing religious freedom and equality (as is repeatedly proven in different surveys published in Israel, such as the Hiddush 2017 Israel Religion & State Index). Even as the topic of prayer arrangements at the Kotel is not perceived as a high priority by Israeli Jews, and in a reality where the topic of the Kotel falls victims to political maneuvers, it is time to step it up. We must confront the foundational issues of religious freedom and equality in a more focused and energetic way, taking advantage of growing constructive criticism among Diaspora Jewry. We need to unite in demanding an overall change, and not only on the challenge of the Kotel. We must maximize the wide interest and agreement on these matters in the Diaspora AND in Israel. Freedom of religion and equality, unlike many other topics in the fields of foreign relations, security, and settlements, is unifying, rather than divisive. Those who oppose religious freedom are narrow margins of religious extremists who abuse the democratic system and their ability to play the role of political king makers, while rejecting the values of democracy and aspiring for a theocracy. Unfortunately, these narrow margins, which a majority of the Jewish people oppose, are joined by politicians willing to sell out Israel's basic values as a Jewish and democratic state and undermine civil liberties, human dignity, and Israel's partnership with world Jewry. This is what brought me to work together with Rabbi Marc Angel in formulating the Vision Statement for Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State. We very much appreciate the fact that the leadership of the Jewish streams joined us in support of this critically important vision. The support, even at this initial stage, cuts across religious and political lines and its relevance to the totality of the Jewish people is self-evident. It addresses the issue of freedom of access to the holy sites, but also emphasizes matters that Israelis deal with on a daily basis. First and foremost among these: matters of personal status, the right to marry, the right to divorce, doing away with the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly, upholding pluralism, gender equality in the public sphere, as well as ensuring freedom of religion and equality for non-Jews.
  12. Therefore when I maintain that it's time to "move on" I'm not suggesting giving up on freedom of worship at the Kotel, but rather to expand the agenda and battle in a way that the Jewish community in the Diaspora has never fought before on core questions - on the rules of engagement on matters of religion and state. We must fight in close partnership with civil society organizations and activists who are leading this struggle on the ground in Israel. We must recognize, also, the needs of the Modern Orthodox public and the secular public, and realize: if there won't be freedom for all, then, in essence, there will be freedom for none. The right of prayer for women and gender equality at the Kotel are truly important, but even if this battle is crowned with success, it will not in and of itself bring about the necessary revolution. It is time to join hands across the oceans and give freedom of religion and equality the importance it deserves, for without it, Jewish unity will shatter into fragments, and the future of the state of Israel is at risk (it is enough to see what is written regarding the security and economic consequences of the current state of affairs in the Haredi sector, which refuses to fully participate in the workforce, teach core curricular studies, and join in defending the country in order to understand how critical these issues are).
  13. It is time to speak truth to power, and it seems that the Jewish leadership, which in the past refrained from confronting the politicians leading the State of Israel are open to this more than ever before. The cancellation of the meeting with the Prime Minister and unprecedentedly harsh pronouncements on their part are but a sign of the transformation that is taking place. Only this week Minister Hanegbi, who was asked to lead the negotiations with Diaspora Jewry and non-Orthodox streams in Israel after the suspension of the Kotel agreement, strongly rejected the criticism that was voiced, saying: there is “a perception among some that Israel no longer welcomes and appreciates all Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israel is a place for all Jews. That is true whether you wear a shtreimel, a knit kipa, a sheitel or nothing on your head at all.” It is difficult to say whether Minister Hanegbi thinks his audience is comprised of fools or ignoramuses, but the impression that is formed among Diaspora leadership in its interactions with cynical politicians who use doublespeak and hostility is the actual truth, and everything else is merely spin. What does Hanegbi mean when he says that Israel is a place for all Jews? Surely all have the right of entry into and residence in Israel - if they are willing to take upon themselves the status of second class citizens whose beliefs and dignities are repeatedly assaulted by religious extremists who control the governmental policies regarding Judaism. Has Hanegbi forgotten that only recently a harsh attack against non-Orthodox Diaspora Judaism was voiced by not only the spokespeople of the ultra-Orthodox parties, but by the Chairman of the Coalition Minister Yariv Levin and the Chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee MK David Amsalem - both belonging to Hanegbi's and the Prime Minister's own Likud party? Whom should we believe? Should we believe Hanegbi who is trying to do damage control caused by Netanyahu's surrender to the demands of the Haredi parties? Should we believe the Prime Minister who cheerfully declared to the leadership of American Jewry that he is committed to making sure that all Jews – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – feel at home in Israel, but shortly afterwards did not hesitate to freeze the Kotel agreement, which was intended to give them a feeling of home in Israel, and then further accused them of being responsible for this because “they are seeking recognition.” It is no longer possible to fragment the principle of religious freedom and equality promised in Israel's Declaration of Independence into miniature particles and address each of them separately, while engaging in a multi-year struggle over each of them individually. This would only ensure that the likes of the Kotel agreement saga would repeat itself in every separate chapter - and that all these battles together would require such a life expectancy that none of us would live to see the end of this struggle. We should therefore go back to the basics. We should fight for the principle of religious freedom and equality, knowing this principle is not only ensured in the State of Israel's formative vision, but enjoys the support of a huge majority of Israelis. Hanegbi is right - "Israel welcomes and appreciates all Jews," but its politicians do not. We must put the politicians in their place to make it clear to them that they are not supposed to be representing themselves, their bank accounts, and their personal ambitions - rather, they represent the public and the common vision and interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Until they internalize this, and until they are guided by this, they should bear the consequences. Pretty but empty words will not suffice to heal the rift.

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