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State of Tel Aviv

Minority Rule: Why the Kotel still favors Orthodox Jews

Original work titled “Kotel”, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 2021, by Yoram Gal. yoramgal.com

Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici (Click to Read)

Few issues capture the essence of the deep conflict between Diaspora and Israeli Jews like the issue of appropriate worship at the Kotel, often called the Western Wall.

In 2014, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Natan Sharansky, Executive Chair of the Jewish Agency, to untie this Gordian knot.

Sharansky’s journey to the role of "eminence grise," trusted by all, is epic: a former Prisoner of Zion in the USSR, international celebrity upon his release in 1986, and, since then, ever-ascendant politically and professionally in his new home. Jerusalem, Israel.

I remember well the grey day in February, 1986, when Sharansky was told by his Soviet captors to walk across the Glienicke Bridge “in a straight line.” Awaiting him at the other end – after nine years being held in the harshest conditions as a Prisoner of Conscience in the Soviet gulag – was freedom, West Berlin and the American Ambassador to Germany.

And so, Sharansky zigzagged, defiantly. Until his final moments in their custody, Sharansky signaled to the Soviets, and the world, that they may control his physical freedom of movement but they did not own a speck of his mind. Nor had they chipped away even a splinter of his personal will.

I watched him on TV then and marveled; and perhaps more so shortly after when he published his first book, “Fear No Evil,” a riveting memoir of personal integrity and strength, even when in the maws of the KGB.

In the 1980s I was deeply engaged in the movement to free Soviet Jewry and travelled to the USSR to meet with refuseniks. Their lives were full of purpose but, honestly, so much despair as well; and understandably so.

And yet, after his ordeal, Sharansky wrote the most eloquent, rousing defense of principle, Jewish pride, tenacity and Zionism. His fortitude empowered us all.

In the ensuing years Sharansky established himself as a skilled political and community leader, both in the Knesset and as the head of the Jewish Agency. He was an excellent choice to lead the negotiations for a Kotel compromise.

Sharansky’s “tell-all” story – published below – of what happened behind closed doors during the years of delicate negotiations is fascinating.

Equally important is the historical context and the “up to the moment” analysis provided by co-author Gil Troy, an exceptionally accomplished academic and historian who has authored many acclaimed books. I admit I have not read the entire Troy canon but absolutely love his biography, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” a seminal analysis of the great American diplomat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Of Irish descent, Moynihan was as much scrapper as polished intellectual; a blend of talent that served him well as he took on the world in support of Israel in the 1970s when it was being attacked relentlessly, militarily and diplomatically, at the United Nations and elsewhere.

Troy is a public speaker par excellence. He “owns” any room with ease; being relatable and highly personable while imparting reams of knowledge and insight; with the gift of making the most complex issues seem almost simple, or, at a minimum, understandable. And he’s also just a great, fun guy, and honorary Canadian, eh? Yes. That makes him extra special.

The pairing of these two powerhouses on this issue is an editor’s – and reader’s – dream.

State of Tel Aviv is so grateful for their contribution of this brilliant and eye-opening essay.

Enjoy.


On May 2, 2022, a thousand young, ultra-Orthodox women confronted 150 egalitarian “Women of the Wall.” The latter group was welcoming the new Jewish month of Iyar by praying at the Western Wall, known also as the “Kotel” in Hebrew; the holiest Jewish site that can be accessed freely by worshippers.

Although such clashes occur monthly, this one attracted more attention than usual. The ultra-Orthodox women were waving World Zionist Organization banners, ostensibly to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s First Zionist Congress. The protesters so misunderstood Herzl’s message of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity that the WZO itself soon after the incident “strongly” condemned the protests for violating the organization’s “founding values.”[1]

With the collapse last week of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government, these ongoing Kotel clashes may not have been his government’s greatest failure – but they were its most surprising disappointment.

Most people know better than to predict anything in Israeli politics, but many observers were certain that the Bennett government – which lasted for a year after it was formed in June 2021 and whose very existence screamed “pragmatic” – would implement the carefully crafted “Kotel compromise.” This agreement, embraced by an impressively wide range of Jewish leaders, sought to ensure equal and dignified access to the Western Wall for all Jews, despite the well-known denominational differences over how to pray and whether women should have a central role in leading prayers.

Such an accomplishment would have been a powerful symbol of the government’s much-touted “70-30” approach; according to which it focused on the 70 percent – the practical concerns and consensus values that unite Israelis – rather than the 30 percent – those issues which divide them.

Back in 2014, it was none other than then-Diaspora Affairs Minister and now former Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, who supervised the construction of a pluralistic prayer pavilion (consistent with the Kotel compromise understanding) facing the historic Robinson’s Arch, a little nook at the end of the sprawling Kotel Plaza. The Arch overlooks the spot where massive stones are believed to have fallen on the day the Romans destroyed the Temple. And the stones remain, appearing suspended in mid-tumble, thousands of years later.

During the 2021 election campaign in Israel (the fourth one in two years), five of the eight parties that eventually joined the government’s “change” coalition championed the 2016 Kotel compromise. By failing to implement the compromise, the parties effectively acknowledged how supremely complex is this issue.

Following years of delicate negotiations initiated and often shepherded directly by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the Kotel compromise was endorsed by all but the ultra-Orthodox parties. For various political reasons, Netanyahu then sabotaged this agreement in 2017. Caving into the ultra-Orthodox Haredi fury on this issue helped him hang on to power just a little bit longer.

But no Haredi parties joined the change coalition, making it difficult to understand exactly why the Kotel compromise was not implemented as a priority by the current government. The change government neither needed nor had Haredi support.

Many of us – including the authors of this article – who fought so hard for so long to realize this compromise are deeply disappointed. Some problems are insoluble. The Kotel solution, however, is solvable, just not sellable… so far.

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Natan Sharansky is perhaps the most well-known Prisoner of Zion from the USSR. He served as a Member of Knesset, Deputy Minister and Minister in several portfolios, and Chairman of the Jewish Agency.
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About Gil Troy
A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University, Prof. Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and leading Zionist intellectual and activist.
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