Women of the Wall

Bennett’s Western Wall Move Is No Goodwill Gesture

Is Naftali Bennett's new platform for egalitarian prayer services near the Western Wall a 'gesture of good will' to non-Orthodox Jews? Sigal Samuel on why we shouldn't take such a credulous view.

When Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled his new provisional platform for egalitarian prayer services near the Western Wall on Sunday, his so-called “compromise” elicited a mixed response. The pluralistic prayer group Women of the Wall, which has helmed the fight for women’s right to pray as they wish at the holy site, was furious; they called the structure a “sunbathing deck that overlooks the Western Wall from a distance ” and staged a 24-hour sit-in to protest it. The Prime Minister’s Office was embarrassed; it was forced to issue a clarificatory statement distancing itself from Bennett’s project. But others, particularly American Jewish leaders, took a rosier view.

In the New York Times, prominent leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements were quoted as offering “cautious praise” for Bennett’s platform, provided it was meant only as an interim solution. Haaretz had Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, saying the platform may be "a gesture of good will." The suggestion seems to be that we should give Bennett the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word when he says this was “done now in order to provide every Jew with a place to pray during the holidays.” But we shouldn’t be so credulous.

To appreciate the full weirdness of Bennett’s move, remember that Israel’s entire governmental and judiciary apparatus had been churning away for months in an effort to resolve the Western Wall dispute. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tasked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky with devising a proposal that would satisfy both the women’s group and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who govern the holy site. Sharansky’s proposal for a separate egalitarian prayer space won broad support from non-Orthodox Israeli and American Jews, but its relevance was soon undermined by a Jerusalem District Court ruling that affirmed women’s right to pray according to their custom at the site itself. The committee appointed to come up with short- and long-term recommendations had yet to submit its final report, but was expected to do so in a matter of days. With all this machinery already set in motion, what possessed Bennett to suddenly take matters into his own hands?

Over at Haaretz, Judy Maltz likewise wondered why Bennett was in such a “big rush to circumvent the standard governmental procedures.” Her government sources said he was eager to create facts on the ground—presumably in order to undercut a potential future solution more palatable to Women of the Wall—and they “seemed rather surprised and even confounded by the move and its particular timing.” Maltz also notes that Bennett’s track record shows he’s not exactly the group’s greatest ally: when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Women of the Wall’s practices are permissible because they don’t violate “local custom,” Bennett said he would draft new regulations that would redefine “local custom” so as to limit their activities.

Some have suggested that Bennett’s platform just wasn’t really built with Women of the Wall in mind. So, for example, Haaretz's Yair Ettinger writes that Bennett “was seeking to demonstrate that he had found a solution on the ground for the non-Orthodox movements.” The fact that Bennett chose to promote the project in an English-language video does support the idea that he was targeting non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews. But even to believe that he was doing this in good faith—rather than, say, to score points with an audience that finds his politics deeply problematic—is to take too credulous a stance.

How can we tell that Bennett’s Western Wall move is not really a goodwill gesture? It’s very simple: Did he consult with Women of the Wall, asking them what exactly their needs are and whether this new structure would meet those needs? Clearly, the answer is no. Did he consult with the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements, asking them the same questions and securing their approval for this structure in advance? Again, no.

But when you’re sincere about wanting to correct a perceived injustice, about wanting to help a group that feels disenfranchised, you don’t try to override that group’s subjectivity or go over their heads. You consult that group. You welcome their active involvement when it comes to formulating and implementing a solution. And you do it all transparently. After all, that’s what Sharansky did when crafting his proposal—and the fact that he took the time to do that, to engage in an intense shuttle diplomacy with all the stakeholders in this debate so as to properly understand their respective needs, is part of why his plan gained such broad support. If Bennett were sincerely interested in satisfying the needs of Women of the Wall, or non-Orthodox Jews, or both, he wouldn’t have sprung his so-called “compromise” on them. He would have involved them at every step of the way.