Dr. Yizhar Hess
Dr. Yizhar Hess
Photo: Public Relations
President Isaac Herzog prays at the Western Wall

President Herzog, the future of the Western Wall is in your hands

Opinion: Herzog knows better than anyone just how important freedom of prayer is and his decision to ask MKs not to attend progressive services undermines years long battle for pluralistic prayer being allowed at the holy site

Dr. Yizhar Hess |
Published: 11.08.21, 23:55
Before daybreak on Friday morning, at which time fervent discussions concerning the state budget were still underway, we were notified by MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv, that both him and MK Alon Tal had decided to accede to the president's personal request and would, therefore, not be coming to the Western Wall that day for a progressive prayer group's service.
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  • I don't envy them for having to take such a perplexing decision, I am well aware of the misgivings it must have involved. They acted as they should have. Nonetheless, the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that "there is a time for breaking down; and a time for building up."
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    יצחק הרצוג מבקר בכותל
    יצחק הרצוג מבקר בכותל
    President Isaac Herzog prays at the Western Wall
    (Photo: EPA)
    This was also our approach in the past when we agreed to the so-called Western Wall compromise (according to which the non-Orthodox "mixed" prayer area for men and women was supposed to be expanded in the southern part of the Western Wall).
    The ball is now in the court of President Isaac Herzog since he was the one who had asked the two MKs not to attend the ceremony in an effort to calm the waters at the holy site.
    One can be rest assured that Herzog is fully aware of the significance of the role he has assumed. It is my opinion that there is none better than him for the task at hand. But a moment before a decision is taken, let us revert to what happened this past Friday at the Western Wall.
    Upon arriving at the Western Wall at 6:30am, the first of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a huge ultra-Orthodox crowd had already filled the Western Wall Plaza and its various entrances. I have made it my custom to join Neshot HaKotel – the Women of the Wall - every Rosh Chodesh, the head of the Hebrew month, and have kept this up for the past decade.
    Near the Dung Gate, I met up with Yochi Rappaport, the energetic CEO of Women of the Wall, an Orthodox woman who is extremely accomplished and always on the go. Yochi handed me an empty Torah-scroll coat, one of 74 similar such coats that had been sent by Diaspora Jewry marking 74 years of Israeli independence.
    We held the empty Torah coats in our hands, and marched together, giving expression to the prohibition imposed by the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, denying women bearing a Torah scroll entry to the Wall.
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    כותל ירושלים מהומות עימותים עם נשות הכותל ספר תנ"ך תפילה הפגנה הפגנות
    כותל ירושלים מהומות עימותים עם נשות הכותל ספר תנ"ך תפילה הפגנה הפגנות
    Police at the Western Wall created a human barrier
    (Photo: Rafi Kotz)
    Rabbi Rabinowitz not only refuses to loan the women even a single scroll, but also prohibits them from bringing their own to the Wall. The marchers neared the security checkpoint. At this point, one could clearly hear the roar of the crowd from the Western Wall Plaza. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths were waiting for us, charged with hatred.
    The security check was humiliating and invasive, as is always the case on Rosh Chodesh, but what followed was exceptional - even for the first day of the Hebrew month. The police were well-prepared and conducted themselves appropriately while performing their task of keeping the Women of the Wall and the ultra-Orthodox youths away from each other. However, the police also made sure not to interfere with the work of the private guardsmen hired by the Rabbi of the Western Wall.
    Officially, these guards are "attendants employed by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation." De facto, these attendants are more reminiscent of thugs who stand guard at the entrance to nightclubs. Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sacks, both of whom are leading figures in Women of the Wall, felt the iron grip of these attendants, quite literally. They were violently removed from the area after refusing to hand over the Torah scroll they had brought with them. All they had wanted was to read from it in the place most sacred to the Jewish people.
    I returned home quite hoarse and with a burning throat. I simply couldn't keep silent in the face of such injustice. I had cried out to the guards, calling on them, time and time again, to take their hands off Lesley and Anat. Pre-military students, from both Israel and abroad, who had come with us, stood appalled at the sight of such atrocities. Some of them will carry those images with them for years to come.
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    מאות משתתפים בהפגנות סביב התפילה המסורתית החודשית שמקיימות במקום נשות הכותל
    מאות משתתפים בהפגנות סביב התפילה המסורתית החודשית שמקיימות במקום נשות הכותל
    Western Wall entrance
    (Photo: Shalev Shalom, TPS)
    In case you were wondering, lawmakers Kariv and Tal did not show up, but MK Itamar Ben-Gvir most certainly did. If there is ever an opportunity for some incitement, he sure knows how to make the best of it. You should have seen the warm welcome Ben-Gvir received from the ultra-Orthodox youths. If I were a member of an ultra-Orthodox party in the Knesset, I would be far more worried about Ben-Gvir than the Women of the Wall.
    So how do we proceed from here?
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who founded the Western Wall Egalitarian Plaza eight years ago while serving as Diaspora Affairs Minister, is well-versed in every detail of the compromise. I'm sure that he, too, is convinced that its immediate implementation is paramount.
    He had closely followed the negotiations we conducted over a four-year period with Nathan Sheransky and Avichai Mandelblit, who was then the cabinet secretary. Bennett is also well aware of the fact that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had urged us to accept the compromise's outline. Although, by our consenting, we were, in fact, relinquishing some of the core principles of our fight for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall.
    Back then – and only because we were convinced of Netanyahu's sincerity – we had consented to accept the southern section of the Wall, a section less known to the public, void of any splendor or stateliness – a section of the Western Wall which would take years to brand as such. But we had agreed, nonetheless, for the sake of Jerusalem and for the sake of peace, even though the definition of "separate but egalitarian" falls short of democratic values.
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    Isaac Herzog speaks at the Knesset after his election as the next president of the State of Israel
    Isaac Herzog speaks at the Knesset after his election as the next president of the State of Israel
    President Herzog
    (Photo: TPS)
    The task that now presents itself to President Herzog is nothing short of a life mission: restoring the Wall to its original glory, and reinstating Jerusalem as the city of peace. There is no act more Zionist than this.
    The task at hand may even become the defining moment of Herzog's term in office. He knows just how much the fight for freedom of prayer at the Western Wall is important to us, and he also knows – almost better than anyone else – the extent to which this issue has undermined Israel's relations with Diaspora Jewry.
    I believe the president is the right man for the task. I bless him that he "finds grace and good favor in the sight of God and man."

    Dr. Yizhar Hess is the vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization and former CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel
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