Reform Jews praying near the Western Wall. How did we let the Israeli government fool us?
We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we believed that we must finally stop this quarrel between us over the Western Wall, and we accepted a compromise agreement. But the government’s decision on Sunday, a cynical—even vicious—decision, took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world, adding a slap.
Listen carefully, Jews of the diaspora: Not only will you have no share or claim to the Western Wall, but conversion in the Jewish state will be performed exclusively according to the Orthodox Judaism.
We made a mistake. We wanted to make Jerusalem a matter of consensus again, so that we Jews would finally stop fighting with each other over something that belongs to all of us. But we were deceived. The compromise agreement made us give up the right to pray in an egalitarian manner at the Western Wall that we know. We have been fighting for this for decades, but out of a sense of historical responsibility and—let’s admit it—the huge pressure we have been under, we acted against our natural instinct, and perhaps unwisely agreed to compromise.
We made a mistake. The findings of a survey published recently by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, in honor of 50 years of Israeli sovereignty at the Western Wall, indicate that we must recalculate our route. The Israeli public clearly supports us: Sixty-two percent of Israelis are in favor of an egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, and only 9.3 percent—less than the percentage of people identified as ultra-Orthodox in Israel—believe that Conservative and Reform Jews should be forbidden to pray at the Western Wall according to their practice.
The prime minister was so determined at first, when he convened us for the historic negotiations, and the cabinet meeting that approved the agreement in January 2016 was so festive. In an unusual move, Netanyahu asked Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to join the meeting via satellite. The transmission was not very successful, Sharansky was cut off, but Netanyahu wouldn’t give up. He knew it was the right decision.
Then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit won the parties’ trust, and while the Haredi ministers voiced their reservations in the meeting, they knew they had gained quite a lot. They voted against it, but were actually in favor of it.
Immediately after the vote, the Foreign Ministry excitedly informed all its representatives abroad and the world’s Jewish communities of the decision. After a decades-long battle, the Israeli government had finally managed the get the parties to compromise. The accepted plan was painful for all parties involved, but each found something to lean on to excite its supporters.
Looking back, I admit that the Haredim gained more than we did in this plan. They won the familiar, famous part of the Western Wall, as well as regulations that would determine once and for all that the “common practice at the site” would be Orthodox. They were forced to accept a mixed entrance to the compound and the official presence of Conservative and Reform Jews on the other side. We received our own public domain, including a budget and certain recognition, but were forced to give up on what the majority of the Jewish people perceive as “the Kotel itself.” For years, we fought for every share and inheritance at the Western Wall, only to find ourselves being shoved to “a piece of the Wall.”
On Sunday, the Jewish leadership around the world was dumbfounded, and this shock is greater than the insult of being slapped in the face. It may be an ending. There is nothing less Zionist than what the Israeli government did. It proved to its people, and to its enemies, that Israel is no longer the Jewish people’s state. But rather, a state that denies its own people.
Now, it is up to the High Court to decide. We could have saved us all five years of negotiations and let the High Court decide a long time ago, but we believed that a compromise was better than arm wrestling and internal fights. It turns out we were wrong. The High Court may pull the government’s chestnuts out of the fire—and if it does, I assume we won’t be brave enough to withdraw from the plan we officially accepted. But what a terrible lesson to have learned. How did we let the Israeli government fool us this way?
Yizhar Hess is the executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel.