Concerns about Proposed “Solution” to Women’s Prayer Issue at the Western Wall

For many years, a group known as Woman of the Wall – religious Israeli women often accompanied by supporters from abroad – have attempted to pray at the women’s section at the Western Wall.  Their efforts have inspired the outrage of the ultra-Orthodox, leading to confrontations in which the Women of the Wall are periodically detained by the police.

In an effort to address the religious rights and aspirations of the Women of the Wall – whose rights are rooted in Israeli law – an Israeli court ruled that they be allowed to pray in the area to the south of the Mughrabi Gate ramp; that is, within the archeological park at the site, adjacent to the Herodian containment wall of the Haram. This solution has not satisfied the Women of the Wall, both because the National Parks Authority charges an entrance fee to access the area (there is no such fee to access the main body of the Western Wall, where men pray freely), and because this “compromise” is viewed as the equivalent of being forced to sit in the back of the bus. There result has been ongoing confrontations.

The problem facing women wanting to pray at the Western Wall is real, and the activists challenging Israeli policy at the Wall have garnered tremendous sympathy, including from Israelis who oppose the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over all issues related to the practice of Judaism and Israelis who are troubled by the heavy-handed Israeli police response to the activists’ non-violent efforts.  Women of the Wall have also earned the support and sympathy of progressive Jews around the world, and in particular in the United States, who have strong views about gender equality and are appalled at Israeli government policies that openly discriminate against women.

In this context, Prime Minister Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure from the Conservative and Reform movements among Diaspora Jewry. In response, Netanyahu chose the path of least resistance: he outsourced the problem to Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency and beloved by Diaspora Jewry.

Sharanky’s “Solution”

It has now been widely reported that Sharansky has come up with a plan purportedly acceptable to all – with “all” meaning the official Orthodox rabbinic establishment, the Women of the Wall, and the supporters of Women of the Wall.  Notably, it seems that Sharansky and perhaps other backers of the plan have been engaged in an active effort to get American Jewry on board, both to placate American Jewish concerns and, perhaps, to enlist American Jewish pressure – if it becomes necessary – in order for the plan to be implemented.  It thus appears to be no accident that the plan was unveiled first in New York, rather than in Israel, and first reported in the U.S. Jewish media (the American Jewish newspaper, the Forward, played a leading role in promoting the plan – see hereherehere, and here).  As the JTA reported, “Sharansky presented the plan on Tuesday in New York to the rabbinical Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. Leaders of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry have expressed their willingness to go along with the proposal.”  The Forward on April 22 published an article headlined, “Natan Sharansky’s Kotel Compromise Gives Him New Heft as Liaison to Diaspora.”

Details of the plan, to the extent that they exist (and the reports are accurate) are as follows:

  • It would turn part of the archeological park, located to the south of the Mughrabi ramp, into an “egalitarian” area of prayer, adjacent to the containment wall.
  • It is not yet clear exactly what this means, but this sounds like the area that is at or near the Buraq Mosque, a site which is today accessed from within the Haram and in close proximity to the Al Aqsa Mosque.
  • It would entail a major change, physical and statutory, to the current use of the site. The area designated for prayer will be significantly enlarged at the expense of the archeological site.
  • The scope of the plan would go far beyond the 250 square meter expansion of the woman’s section in the current Western Wall plaza, as envisioned in the existing-but-not-yet-implemented plan to renovate the Mughrabi ramp.  This is much more radical a change in the status quo.
  • It is not clear what would be done, if anything, with the Mughrabi ramp. The current work and excavations around Mughrabi ramp and Robinson’s Arch have nothing to do with this scheme (at least yet).
  • Based on these details, a map showing the projected area of the plan can be viewed/downloaded here.

No formal steps to implement the plan have been taken as of this writing. The plan only recently landed on Netanyahu’s desk, who within days expressed his support for it (reported in the JTA here).  The plan is being hyped as a major breakthrough, and has received a good deal of public support, both from the Western Wall Heritage fund leaders and Women of the Wall, not to mention the American Jewish community. So the plan has already become a major public issue, and with apparently wide support.  It is still possible that opposition to the scheme will be mounted by the ultra-Orthodox and even the Antiquities Authority.  It is far more likely that the scheme will continue to gain momentum.

Stakeholders & Agendas

Sharansky has apparently not included the Jordanians – who under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty have authority over Islamic equities in Jerusalem, and who have just concluded a new agreement with the Palestinians on the Jordanian role in Jerusalem – in his consultations regarding a plan that would amount to a major change in the status quo in one of the most sensitive spots on earth.  Nor has he apparently included Palestinian stakeholders – the Islamic authorities known as the Waqf.  Nor has he apparently included international stakeholders, like UNESCO (the area is a designated World Heritage site).  Instead, Sharansky’s approach has been to act as if this is entirely an Israeli/Jewish problem that can and will be settled strictly amongst Israelis/Jews – as if its resolution has no implications for any other parties and no implications on broader issues like security, Israel-Jordan relations, the credibility of newly-launched U.S.-backed peace efforts, and the viability of the two-state solution itself.

Indeed, at no stage in all of this have there been any indications that anyone involved in promoting this plan is concerned about or perhaps even cognizant of the Muslim and Arab equities at the site, or the dangers of tinkering with the status quo.   Some – like many in the American Jewish community – may simply be unfamiliar with the fact that the unique and complex sensitivities of the site mandate such broader engagement in any plans of this nature.

Others are likely not averse to finding a “solution” that both pokes a finger in the eye of the Palestinians and the Muslim world and strengthens the Israeli-Jewish hold in this most sensitive area of Jerusalem.  The fact that Sharansky has found a way to do so with the support of progressive American Jewry may only make the solution that much more attractive.  Indeed, even before this new scheme came into play, right-wing groups like the Temple Mount Faithful, whose agenda has little in common with that of progressives and nothing to do with the rights of women, have sought to exploit Women of the Wall by happily arguing along the lines of: “just as these women are invoking the right to freedom of worship, we are invoking the same right in our demand to worship on the Temple Mount.”

Finally, others – like Sheikh Raad Salah of Israel’s Islamic Movement and pundits in the Arab world – will also likely be more than happy with this plan, treating it as proof of Israeli sinister and aggressive intentions toward the Haram al Sharif and using it to rally anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment (see this article for a sense of things to come in terms of attention to this issue in the Arab and Muslims worlds).  And all of this comes in the context of the recent announcement in Qatar of plans for a $1 billion Arab fund for Jerusalem.

Learning from the Past – the Mughrabi Gate Debacle

The circumstances surrounding the plans for a new prayer area are eerily reminiscent of the events that led to a major, and yet-to-be-resolved dispute concerning the re-construction/expansion of the Mughrabi Ramp. Then, as now, Arab and Muslim stakeholders were not engaged, and crisis ensued. Back in 2007, we did a post-mortem analysis regarding the events surrounding Mughrabi Ramp, and what lessons can be derived from them.  Those interested in taking a harder took at these issues are referred to that study here

The Mughrabi Gate – the access point from the Western Wall plaza onto the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – has long been (and remains) a hyper-sensitive issue in the Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Muslim arenas (for background from us, see here and here).  This is because empirically (not formally), it is the seamline between two religions – Islam and Judaism – and between a third “secular religion” for Israelis – archeology.

  • To the north of the Mughrabi Gate ramp is the Western Wall and its plaza, which in the area adjacent to the Wall is divided into a prayer area for men, and a prayer area for women (within which activities are sharply circumscribed by Israeli law). This area is controlled by the Western Wall Heritage Fund (under the authority of the office of the Prime Minister), but in practice this is the turf of the Orthodox rabbinate – which has long had ambitions of extending its reach further south across the plaza.
  • To the east of the ramp is the Haram al Sharif, which is the third holiest site in Islam and looked to by Muslims the world over.
  • And to the south of the ramp is the archeological park (which is also adjacent to the Haram’s containing wall), which is functionally the turf of secular archeologists and the National Parks Authority, but in this camp, too there are those harboring ambitions to extend activities/influence, driven both by archeological curiosity and religious/ideological fervor.

The fate of the Mughrabi ramp has emerged as an explosive issue because changing the status quo at the site will tinker with the delicate balance along this seam.  This explosive issue is again coming to the fore today, with the Sharansky plan.

The Western Wall Plaza/Mughrabi Quarter – Historical background

During the British Mandate, the Western Wall was about 28 meters long, with a prayer area of 120 sq. meters, and located in an alleyway. Prayer at the site was not only undignified but the source of constant tension, often involving the humiliation, real or perceived, of worshipers. The decision to create the monumental Western Wall Plaza took place with these memories etched in the Israeli psyche, and in unique historical circumstances.

On June 10, 1967, hours after the ceasefire that ended the 6-Day War, the Israeli government decided to raze hundreds of homes inhabited by Palestinians in what was known until then as the Mughrabi Quarter. This did not take place in the heat of battle, nor was there a pretense of legality. Rather, the decision was made under the assumption along the lines of: what cannot be done now, within hours of the end of the combat, will never be done.   Virtually all of the Western Wall Plaza and the Mughrabi Gate, and much of the archeological park – and all of the area likely designated as the new prayer area – have been created on the site of a pre-1967 Palestinian Mughrabi Quarter, whose residents were forcibly displaced from their homes minutes before they were razed. The Western Wall more than doubled in length (from 28 meters to 60 meters) and the monumental Western Wall plaza is twenty times larger (2400 sq. meters) than it was during the British Mandate.

The Israeli public has forgotten these uncomfortable facts, for obvious reasons. The Palestinians and the Arab and Muslim worlds have not, and this is only compounded by the close proximity of the site to the Buraq Mosque.

Regardless of the painful issues relating to Israeli actions regarding the Mughrabi Quarter in 1967, in one regard the decision makers were correct: what Israel could do immediately after the cessation of hostilities it could not to later – and certainly not 46 years later. Not long ago, we saw plans to repair and re-construction/expansion of the Mughrabi Gate access ramp – the implementation of which entail a change in the status quo that is far more minor that the anticipated change in the designate prayer area in the area bordering on the Temple Mount’s containing wall – lead to riots in Jerusalem and protests across the Arab and Muslim worlds.  This experience, which brought back memories of the Hasmonean Tunnel debacle, bolstered an incontrovertible conclusion: Israel cannot change the status quo at this site without coordinating the matter with ALL stakeholders, including and most importantly the Waqf and Jordan.

Timeline for Decision-Making/Planning/Implementation

Whether Netanyahu’s support for the Sharansky scheme is genuine, tactical, or simply inconclusive is not clear – perhaps even to himself.  Netanyahu, perhaps having learned the lessons of the Mughrabi Ramp debacle, has in recent years acted with self-restraint in matters regarding the status quo in and around the Temple Mount. Given the experience of the Mughrabi Gate debacle – when Israel tried to carry out construction without going through the statutory planning and licensing processes – there is reason to believe that Netanyahu will not act precipitously.  If that is indeed the case, it is likely that the physical changes, and changes in designated uses, of the areas in and near the Western Wall plaza will require the approval of a new town plan (for a detailed flow-chart of the intricate planning process, click here). That means drafting the plan, receiving technical approvals, the deposit of the plan for public review, hearings on objections, etc.  In such a case,  implemention would be many months away

However, Netanyahu is still the man behind the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel, which he called “the rock of our existence” – which was another debacle. Given this history and the political pressures that will no doubt be brought to bear, it cannot assumed that Netanyahu will not try to bypass the normal planning and licensing procedures and seek to promote this plan by means of simply obtaining a building permit. Indeed, there have already been reports of Sharansky claiming that the new arrangements will be put in place within a month.  In such a case, it will be a matter of at least several weeks before such a permit could be issued.

If this kind of precipitous path is chosen, this plan has all the potential of turning into an international incident that could rival the riots that accompanied previous actions around the Mughrabi Gate. Indeed, given the nature of the location, the proximity to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and Al Aqsa, and the issues at hand, it is far-fetched in the extreme to imagine that the implementation of the Sharansky Plan will not cause a major international incident, at the very least.