Taking Sides

Natan Sharansky Mediates Jerusalem’s Western Wall Dispute

Women want to sing next to Judaism’s holiest site. Ultra-Orthodox caretakers want them to shut up. By Dan Ephron

Natan Sharansky likes to tell people that after spending nine years in a Soviet prison and nine years in Israeli politics, he’s smart enough to stay away from both. But the famous former dissident has been pulled back into politics with an assignment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that seems almost cruel in its complexity: to fix the problems at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

Specifically, Sharansky has a few weeks to mediate between a group of Jewish women who wish to pray at the Wall in the manner of their own ritual—singing aloud, reading from the Torah, and wearing prayer shawls—and the ultra-Orthodox caretakers of the site who view such displays by women as an abomination.

The clash between the two sides has been fought out in Israeli courts and in the media. It got broad attention last October, when police dragged several of the women from the Wall (the Kotel, in Hebrew) and arrested the leader of the group, Anat Hoffman.

It also channels broader issues, including the grievances of the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent a majority of Jews in the U.S. but are largely disenfranchised in Israel.

Both groups have said the ban on women singing and reading from the Torah at the Wall threatens to distance huge numbers of American Jews from Israel. Among other things, it precludes Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the Kotel, even as Bar Mitzvah ceremonies—often for American boys—are held there every day.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Sharansky acknowledged that the issue represents a formidable challenge. But he said he felt obliged to take it off Netanyahu’s hands.

“He called me here at my office and said he needs someone to deal with this,” said Sharanksy, who was once a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and served on his cabinet. “He has enough headaches so he tries to distribute some of the headaches to [others].”

The office he’s referring to is the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel but also tries to reinforce Jewish identity in communities around the world. Previous Jewish Agency leaders included Israel’s founders, David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. Huge photos of the man hang in the hallways of the building. Sharansky has headed the organization for three years.

He says it’s a good perch from which to tackle the Wall dispute because the Agency’s board includes representatives of the three main streams of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.

For three weeks now, Sharansky has been meeting with representatives of all sides—rabbis, lawyers, activists, and even archeologists who have excavated the Western Wall Plaza—to try and formulate bridging proposals.

The conflict is hardly new. Women of the Wall, as the group is known, have been going there for their own prayer service once a month for more than two decades—only to be ushered out by police.

According to Jewish tradition, the Kotel was one of the retaining walls that supported the great Jewish Temple—a biblical-era shrine that was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again in the span of a few hundred years. More recently, it was controlled by Jordan until Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, along with the West Bank and Gaza.

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One of the first things Israel did was clear out an area in front of the Western Wall where people could pray. Soon a partition was erected to divide the men from the women, in keeping with Orthodox custom. Management of the Wall was given to Orthodox rabbis, who have maintained the site according to the strictest interpretations of Jewish observance.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Kotel’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, said after the controversy in October that he would not agree to any compromise at the Wall.

“The decisions are mine … If everyone does their own custom, the house will explode.” (Rabinowitz did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for an interview).

But Hoffman, who is also a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, says the entire management of the Kotel needs restructuring.

“The fact that Israel took the keys to the holiest site and handed it to one faction can’t continue. The Jewish world won’t accept the criminalization of our action,” she told The Daily Beast.

Hoffman wants the rabbis to allow the women one hour a month to worship at the Wall according to their own customs. She won that right in a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 but lost it on appeal three years later. Hoffman will meet Sharansky this week. She plans to return to the Wall with her group next week.

In his interview with The Daily Beast, Sharanksy would not talk about the proposal he plans to put on Netanyahu’s desk later this month, nor would he describe his own views on the matter. Sharansky’s wife is Orthodox but his own faith appears to be more nuanced. He does not wear a skullcap, the most prominent marker of Orthodox observance.

“If the idea is how to satisfy everybody in the world, there’s no way to do it … Every Jew in the world has to feel that they are connected to Israel and that the Kotel is the symbol of this connection to the Jewish people … There are ways,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean everybody will be very happy, but I think a lot can be done to meet legitimate expectations of different people.”