IMPJ positions and Guidelines regarding the “Western Wall”

10 February 2010

26 Shvat 5770

IMPJ positions and Guidelines regarding the “Western Wall”

In recent months, public discourse in Israel and Jewish communities around the world has again focused on the character of the site of the Western Wall and the religious and cultural nature of the activities conducted there.  This discourse has been the response to two events in the aftermath of the activities conducted by the “Women of the Wall:” Nofrit Frankel’s was subject to a police investigation on Rosh Hodesh Kislev (November) after she put on a talit in the women’s section of the Kotel, and Anat Hoffman was summoned for a criminal investigation after their December  prayer gathering at the Kotel (Anat Hoffman is chair of the Women of the Wall and Director of the Israel Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center).

The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Council of Progressive Rabbis and the Israel Religious Action Center view the Israel Police Department’s behavior toward the Women of the Wall as worrisome with regard to these two incidents.  The Movement sees the police proceedings as an attempt to threaten the members of the group and impinge upon their freedom of worship.

From IMPJ’s perspective, the events which have affected the Women of the Wall are part of a continuum of developments and episodes at the Kotel which have led a significant proportion of the Israeli public to abandon this important site, and have subjected this religious and national site to norms which are not in keeping with the practices and perspectives of the majority of Jewish communities in Israel and the world.

Some of these proceedings recall the practice of the separation of men and women at the entrance points to the Kotel; the request to separate women and men at Jewish Agency ceremonies at the Kotel’s public plaza; the prohibition of mixed groups of women and men at events which are accompanied by singing; offensive signs regarding the issue of modest dress for visitors at the Kotel and other matters. These occurrences are linked to the fact that the administration of the Kotel is in the hands of authorities with a clear-cut and categorical religious and political identity, whose conduct is not transparent and disregards principles of consensus as a reflection of the range of views of the Jewish people and Israeli society.  It should be noted that a large number of  these practices have been the impetus for public and legal action led by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Israel Religious Action Center.

As a religious, pluralistic and diverse movement, the Movement’s rabbinic and community leadership has a wide range of views regarding the struggle of the Women of the Wall, and the broader issue of the religious and spiritual centrality of the Kotel. Yet, the IMPJ recognizes the importance of the site to many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, including the Reform Movement, and also acknowledges the national significance of the site.

Furthermore, IMPJ recognizes the public debate over the nature of the site as an expression of the broader struggle over the image of the city of Jerusalem and an aspect of the endeavor to prevent the growing separation of men and women in public services and events and to prevent the exclusion of women from key places in the public sphere.

From our perspective, the current public struggle over the Kotel underscores the key issues at stake: Despite the compromises achieved by the Conservative Movement and the Israeli Government, in which an alternative prayer site was established in the Archeological Park near the Kotel (at Robinson’s Arch), the outcome did not provide the hoped-for resolution. This prayer plaza does not provide an egalitarian and pluralistic public plaza for visitors and worshipers at the Kotel.   Furthermore, it serves to sanction the exclusion of the non-Orthodox public from the Kotel.

In light of the above, IMPJ views the struggle over the public character of the Kotel as a worthy and important struggle which integrates varied Progressive and Reform congregations and Reform-Zionist organizations.  IMPJ’s participation in this struggle will be conducted in accordance with the Movement’s long-term values, principles and goals within Israeli society.

In this context, emphasis should be given to the IMPJ’s respect for the rule of law in the State of Israel and compliance with judicial authorities. In the past and at present, IMPJ will not countenance intentional defiance of Supreme Court rulings.

In keeping with these principles, IMPJ adopts the following operating principles with regard to the Kotel:

IMPJ will take part in the public effort to assure the national and Jewish character of the Kotel, as part of a genuine struggle to prevent damage to freedom of worship, separation between men and women, and to oppose harmful and humiliating behavior by the Kotel authorities imposed on visitors.  IMPJ’s involvement will be implemented through its varied wings and in cooperation with Progressive congregations overseas and Reform Zionist organizations.

These actions will be part of the Movement’s efforts to advance freedom of religion and conscience in Israel, promotion of gender equality and the pluralistic character of the City of Jerusalem.

IMPJ’s efforts will focus on the general character of the site and its accessibility to a range of Jewish communities, and not only to one component of the public struggle, including the activities of the Women of the Wall.

IMPJ will aspire to engage additional partners in this endeavor.  The basic terms for partnership will be strict adherence to Higher Court rulings with regard to the Kotel Plaza. IMPJ will neither cooperate with nor support organizations which deliberately do not comply with these guidelines.

In light of the failure of the compromise to conduct joint prayers at Robinson’s Arch, IMPJ will place a central focus on the creation of a third public area at the Kotel, which will be an egalitarian plaza open to the public at large, for the purpose of prayer or a visit to the Kotel.

IMPJ’s endeavors will include the following aims:
Assuring the full representation of all streams and congregations in the authorities which provide public administration and oversight of the Western Wall
Rescinding gender separation at the entrance gates to the Western Wall
Restoring the Jewish Agency ceremonies to the Kotel and preventing gender separation at national ceremonies
Stopping harassment and interference with mixed gatherings (women and men) at the Kotel’s upper plaza.
Removing offensive signs from the Kotel site.

IMPJ’s efforts to achieve the above aims will be based on public action, media efforts and legal and educational endeavors to be conducted by the Movement’s administration, rabbinic leadership and senior professional staff.  IMPJ’s activities will be sensitive to the range of opinions within the Movement and its congregations with regard to their views of the Western Wall and the activities that take place there.

IMPJ and the Religious Action Center will seek to coordinate stances and guidelines with Reform and Progressive Jewish leadership overseas and define spheres of activities for overseas congregations seeking to take part in these endeavors.

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