Some important news from Israel this week:
On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first ever Israeli prime minister to make an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bennett met with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Both leaders expressed concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and discussed cooperation agreements in the fields of trade, research and development, cyber security, health, education, aviation and more. All of this has transpired since the signing of the Abraham Accords. At the conclusion of the meetings, the Crown Prince accepted Prime Minister Bennett’s invitation to visit Israel. No timeframe was given for the trip.
In a surprising and disappointing development Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahane told his advisors this week that the plan to implement the “Kotel (Western Wall) Agreement” was being shelved due to its political sensitivity and the concerns over incitement and violence.
It is important to understand that prayer arrangements at the Western Wall have been an intermittently controversial subject in Israel for many years, as well as a source of tension between Israel and global Jewry. In 2016, following a long process of consultation, where the Jewish Federations of North America played a leading role, a deal on the Western Wall emerged between the major streams of Judaism, the Government of Israel and other parties. The “Kotel Agreement” would see a permanent structure for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall that would be administered by leaders from the Jewish Agency and the non-Orthodox streams. In a historic move, all sides agreed to the compromise, which was adopted by the government in 2016. (Fuller details of the agreement can be seen in this article as well as here). However, following an outcry over the deal in the ultra-Orthodox media, in 2017 ultra-religious politicians backtracked their support for the deal and convinced the government to freeze its implementation. The deal has not moved forward ever since.
When the current government was sworn in in July 2021, they expressed their commitment to implement the deal. In addition, moving the Agreement forward is one of the clauses in the Coalition Agreement with the Blue and White Party (details here). Last month, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that he hoped the Agreement would be implemented by January, and he was supported by leaders of other parties in the government coalition. Lapid said, “The Western Wall compromise is the right thing to do from the religious point of view, and also for everything connected to our relationship with the Diaspora.”
However, as implementation of the Agreement seemed to become increasingly a reality, opposition to such a move grew stronger, particularly from the ultra-Orthodox. The head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, referring to the likely implementation of the deal, said, “This is a declaration of war on the country’s Jewish identity.” Similarly, in recent months, clashes have occurred at the Kotel between women’s prayer groups and ultra-religious protestors. President Isaac Herzog has intervened on numerous occasions, asking members of Knesset from both sides of the debate to refrain from going to the Kotel when their presence may ignite further tensions.
Since the new government was sworn in, Minister Kahana (who is a member of Bennett’s Yamina Party) has begun implementing numerous reforms aimed at liberalizing religious life in Israel. Most significantly, the Minister has spearheaded a major reform in the kosher sector and is reportedly working on significant changes that will enable liberalization of conversion in Israel. It was widely assumed that he too would back implementation of the Kotel Agreement in the very near future.
However, last Sunday, reports emerged that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Kahana decided to freeze the implementation of the Kotel Agreement. According to Israeli media reports, the reason for the turn-around is recent violent confrontations at the Kotel and “efforts by the right wing to use the as-yet unimplemented deal to fuel incitement in Israeli society and against the government.”
Minister Kahana said, “We have decided not to deal with this now, period. The Western Wall compromise has become a focus for incitement and hatred, especially by people from Likud, who are latching onto it. We cannot play into their hands. We’re freezing everything at the moment. We’re not touching it.” In response to Kahana’s statements, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai said, “The Government of Israel will continue to strive for the implementation of the Western Wall compromise…We will push for equality for all streams of Judaism.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York said, “If you succumb to threats of violence, then in fact, you’re letting the extremists determine policy.”
The Jewish Federation expects the government to uphold its promise of religious pluralism in Israel and specifically of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. It is imperative that Israel guarantee the right to peace and security for all worshipers there. We call on Israel’s government to carry out the Kotel Agreement, first agreed to four years ago. A deal is a deal.
You can learn more here and we will continue to keep a close watch on developments.
Although the Portland Timbers lost in a shootout (a terrible way to decide a game) in the MLS championship game, we extend a hearty congratulations to the team and the Timbers Army for a wonderful season.