How to implement a Kotel emergency plan

The leaders of the Jewish Federation system, the leaders of the Conservative movement, and the leaders of Reform Judaism spent some time with the Prime Minister of Israel yesterday in a so-called “emergency meeting” concerning the Western Wall compromise. The compromise, as I explained exactly two months ago, is not yet dead, but also not quite alive. The government made a decision, but then the ultra-Orthodox parties reversed their position and made it politically impossible for the Prime Minister to implement the plan.

Netanyahu was conciliatory in the meeting yesterday. ‘I am still committed to implementing this plan,’ he told the group of Jewish leaders. One of them later said in a bitter tone: he is committed to this as he is committed to the two state solution. That is to say: commitment and implementation do not always go hand in hand.

The Prime Minister also used a comparison in order to explain his stance. He did not compare the Kotel compromise to the two state solution, but rather to the approval of the gas deal. The gas deal is something that the PM wanted, but which took very long for him to complete – with some compromises. The message from him was as follows: in parliamentary politics, it sometimes takes time for a plan to be implemented. It takes patience, it takes compromise. If the PM is as committed to the Kotel deal as he was committed to the gas deal, that is indeed good news. But doubt would not be out of order in this case. Netanyahu has a lot on his plate, and the Kotel will become urgent only if and when he feels real pressure to turn back to dealing with it. What is an “emergency” for rabbis Schonfeld, Jacobs, Wernick, Kariv, for the head of the Jewish Federations Jerry Silverman and his Israeli representative Becky Caspi, for Conservative leader Yizhar Hess, and for Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman – is not an “emergency” for Netanyahu. He, and we, have been living with a certain Kotel for many years and can live with the same Kotel for many years to come.

And, of course, the Haredi parties see no emergency. They were reluctantly cooperative when the deal seemed like something that cannot be avoided. Then they realized that they have the political power to block it – and they did. If nothing forces them into changing their position yet again, they will stay as adamant in opposition to the deal as they are now. Why compromise?

The meeting yesterday ended cordially, but the leaders left the room frustrated. They are giving the Prime Minister “a few weeks” to come back with new ideas for a solution – there was an initial suggestion to make it a more exact 21 day deadline – or else.

Or else what? That is what the leaders of the movements need to think about – and they are. After leaving the meeting, several of them told me that they are not optimistic about the next “few weeks.” After all, yesterday’s meeting was called because of another deadline that just past without progress: in mid-March Netanyahu appointed the then head of his bureau David Sharan (the new Secretary of the Cabinet) to look into the deal and come up with an implementation plan, but nothing much has happened since. A few more weeks are not likely to change this reality. Netanyahu needs the Haredi parties more than he needs the compromise. If that does not change – the deal will never become a reality.

It has to change, and the people that can change it are the people who came to the meeting yesterday. Currently, they are pondering several options. They can wage a campaign among their constituents, criticize the Israeli government, bombard it with emails, refuse to cooperate on things that are important to Israel. They can further complicate Israel’s relations with US Jewry.

Is that kind of threat tangible enough to force Netanyahu’s hand and make the Haredi parties realize that the time for them to compromise has come? Not necessarily. America is far away, and Israeli politics is always present. What happens in American synagogues and the emails in English that they will send to the PM’s office won't make a serious impression on the MKs of Shas and United Torah Judaism. Impressing them, and making the battle for the Kotel more concrete for Israelis, might require a more severe measure – one that was raised in conversations among the leaders: to begin a civil resistance-style fight on the ground. That is, to send groups of progressive Jews to the Kotel to pray in mixed groups. Reform and Conservative prayers at the northern plaza of the Kotel.

Just imagine this scenario: a group of American, Canadian, and Israeli Jews coming to the Kotel – say 200 strong – and beginning to daven in such a way. The other Jews at the scene react with fury. The police get involved to prevent violence. Cameras click. Videos are posted. A PR disaster for Israel. Jewish worshipers at the Kotel humiliated by other Jews, dragged by the police of the Jewish State, sweating and crying under the August sun – when all they want to do is pray as Jews do all around the world. And the next day, another group, and the next one, another one. If the movements can convince Jews who come to Israel during the summer to sacrifice one day and risk some inconvenience to do that, the “emergency” will become a two-way emergency.

It could be quite a moment for all parties involved. For progressive Jews, who would walk the walk in an attempt to change Israel. For Israeli Jews, who would see how important this is to their fellow Jews. For the government of Israel, which would need to decide whether it truly wants Israel to be a place where all Jews can practice Judaism. For Haredis, who would understand that there are other Jews to be considered. It could be an educational drama that has the potential of changing the conversation about Jewish partnership for both US Jews and Israeli Jews.

If you ask the Prime Minister, he’d probably tell you that this is not a good idea. Too extreme, to aggressive, too risky. But in fact, if Netanyahu is truly committed to the Kotel plan as he said he is, it is a good idea. It is an idea that could help him sell the compromise to his Haredi coalition partners. It is an idea that could help him transcend the politics-as-usual that put the deal on hold. It is an idea that could help him be the leader at the center – holding the Jewish people together by strong-arming a compromise on all parties. Done properly, it is an idea that could make Israel a better place. Done properly, it is an idea that could make progressive Judaism’s involvement with Israel more fruitful.

And it is not that difficult to put such a plan together – that is, if the issue is truly important not just to the leaders that were at the meeting yesterday, but also to the many thousands of Jews for whom they presumably speak.