Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was in New York for a quick two-day trip last week, meeting with a variety of American Jewish leaders on his newest assignment: seeking to resolve the conflict between women who want to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and traditionalists who oppose them on religious grounds.
Sharansky was tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be a one-man commission and make recommendations on the issue, following the uproar in the diaspora over a woman being arrested in October for leading a women's prayer group at the Kotel (Western Wall) in violation of Israeli law.
Many American Jews, especially in the Reform and Conservative movements, who are used to the notion of women wearing a tallit, or tefillin and reading from the Torah at prayer services, were offended by the arrest. They've galvanized in opposition to the laws in Israel that make such worship for women at the Wall illegal.
Sharansky is not making public his efforts or his thinking on the controversy for now, no doubt because whatever position he espoused would be criticized by those in opposition. And it seems unlikely that he will make his recommendations until the next coalition and Knesset in Israel are in place so as not to affect the political process.
He has a tough job, because the matter of women holding praying services at the Kotel is more of an issue here in the diaspora than in Israel, where women's rights advocates say they have more pressing issues to address, including not being restricted to sitting in the back of some public buses.
Most of the members of Women of the Wall, the group that prays at the Kotel each Rosh Chodesh and whose leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested, are English-speakers, originally from North America or other Western countries and representative of all the religious streams. They describe their cause in terms of civil as well as religious rights in ways that do not resonate as sharply with native Israelis, most of whom are secular and see the Kotel as the purview of the Orthodox.
While a wide range of American Jewish groups have spoken out in opposition to the current law in Israel, which says that prayer at the Kotel must conform to “local custom,” Israeli politicians have little to gain in seeking reforms. They do not represent Jews outside of Israel, and the religious parties in Israel, who uphold the laws about traditional prayer, have a great deal of clout.
The same holds true, of course, for the prime minister, who having lived in America in his youth may well be sympathetic to diversity in religious expression, but who knows there is little political capital in championing this issue. He has needed the support from religious parties in the past and may again in his next coalition.
What's more, Netanyahu's support among American Jews comes less from liberal Jews, many of whom find him too hawkish for their taste, than from the Orthodox. So why, he may be thinking, should he go out of his way to please those who are not his constituency, particularly if he risks offending his base?
If it's all about politics, which it usually is in Israel, the chances are slim that Sharansky will come up with a compromise that will please the women's groups, who are now confined to pray individually behind a mechitza directly facing the Kotel or in alternative services at Robinson's Arch nearby, at the southern section of the Kotel.
But Sharansky, more than the great majority of Israeli leaders, understands diaspora Jewry, having headed that ministry and spent much time in the U.S. And he has the ear of Netanyahu who, after all, chose him to make recommendations.
Part of the problem is that while American Jews would like to see the Jewish state adopt a U.S. brand of democracy, which separates church and state, Israel isn't about to make such a dramatic change, though many social reformers would prefer it.
Much as we American Jews have our religious and ideological debates among the various denominations here, there is nothing to compare to the complexity Jerusalem faces when its government itself deals with personal-status issues like conversion, marriage and “who is a Jew.”
Sentiments, pro and con, on women's prayer at the Kotel must be seen in the context of the larger divide over diaspora and Israeli approaches not only to these issues but to the status of the settlements, the treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and the reality of an Israeli government moving further to the right. What should be particularly worrisome to Israeli leaders is that significant numbers of American Jews, especially those under 40, are uncomfortable with the Israel they see and read about here.
Of course the tensions are not new. Fifteen years ago, Netanyahu, in his first tenure as prime minister, tried to tackle the who-is-a-Jew issue. He appointed the Ne'eman Commission, which ultimately called for the establishment of a conversion institute made up of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative instructors, with the actual conversions done through the rabbinic courts controlled by the fervently Orthodox.
It was a noble idea, but those courts applied stringent standards and the result has been only a few hundred conversions a year, with many potential candidates dissuaded from applying.
With the fervently Orthodox still dominant, the odds are against a dramatic breakthrough now on prayer at the Kotel. But American Jews should take note that it was their outrage over the arrest of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman that caused Netanyahu to seek a compromise.
Let's hope that keeping the pressure on will make a difference, and that Natan Sharansky, who knows better than anyone the power of a righteous cause for human and religious rights, will be an ideal advocate in finding a more equitable way for women to pray as they wish at Judaism's holiest site.