When IDF paratroopers stormed the Kotel plaza in the summer of 1967, reclaiming the site cherished by the Jewish People for over 2,000 years, Jewish communities around the world watched in awe as history unfolded. Fifty years later, Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora are again fighting at the Western Wall, and this time the battle is to preserve the universal and iconic importance of the Kotel.
In January 2016, the Israeli government approved the “Kotel Compromise,” agreeing to create numerous prayer spaces at the Western Wall for all Jews according to varying religious customs. But the agreement was abruptly rescinded this past June due to political pressure. When the Reform movement subsequently submitted a motion to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Shlomo Amar, spoke out publicly, decrying them as “worse than Holocaust deniers.”
Adding to the controversy, in mid-September, the Israeli government restated to the Supreme Court that it wouldn’t withdraw the decision to annul the Kotel Compromise. The lack of public outcry among the Israeli public and leadership angered Jewish leaders outside Israel, creating a deep rift. In an unprecedented move, some Jewish leaders called on their communities to take economic and political action, such as boycotting El Al, in an attempt to assert political and economic pressure and alter the government’s decision.
As a new year begins, I call on all Israelis to reflect on the striking contrast between the historic victory of recapturing the Kotel – perhaps the single most unifying moment in recent Jewish history – and the resounding fallout and division due to the retraction of the Kotel Compromise. We must work together to plan a better future, one that can be celebrated harmoniously in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel later this coming spring. The Kotel once united us. It now threatens to tear us apart.
Like so many, I believe that Israel is the stronghold for Jewish life, for religious practice and culture alike, and that Jerusalem stands at its heart. That is why I wonder how it can be that Reform, Conservative and egalitarian Jews are essentially barred from worshipping as they wish to at the most important site in our shared tradition.
As Israelis, we have always known that our fellow Jews were ready to stand at the frontlines of international discourse regarding Israel, to protect the state from delegitimization efforts and the BDS movement. We have come to expect strong vocal support from these communities as a means to establish and fortify diplomatic and cultural ties with our allies, like Canada. These expectations stem from a shared history and tradition, and from a mutual state of concern for our future as a people.
Yet, how do we welcome our brethren to Israel? By insinuating that their wish to pray at the Kotel is worse than Holocaust denial? This cannot stand.
Israel was established as the national home for the entire Jewish People – for Jews living in the Holy Land as well as for those in the Diaspora. Fundamentally, then, no one should be able to stake ownership over the spiritual property of the Kotel. It belongs to us all. That’s why the future of the Kotel plaza should be a matter of concern for every single Jew, and why the site’s management should take into consideration all of world Jewry, regardless of religious affiliation.
The management of the Kotel must be carried out with the best interests of the entire Jewish People at heart. Future arrangements for the Kotel plaza should focus at all costs on how the Western Wall can serve as a Jewish haven, a space devoid of political interests, a universally welcoming place that reflects the Jewish value of creating a space of prayer for all.
Naama Klar is managing director of the Reut Institute. She lives in Tel Aviv.