News Analysis: Wall strife signals religious crossroads

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JERUSALEM — The showdown between ultra-religious and liberal Jews at the Western Wall plaza this week is the latest sign of the growing struggle between the two groups to define the nature of the Jewish state.

As the Tisha B'Av holy day began Monday evening, ultra-religious men began trying to drown out the prayers of about 200 men and women worshipping together in a specially designated area at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, a few hundred yards from the Wall itself. Police forcibly removed the non-Orthodox group from the plaza.

Most Orthodox Jews find such egalitarian prayer groups offensive.

On a wide range of issues — from conversion to local religious councils to the type of prayer permitted near the Western Wall — Orthodox and liberal Jews are grappling to determine whether religious life in Israel will continue to be controlled by strict adherence to Orthodox Jewish law or whether various interpretations of Jewish custom will be accepted.

"Until now, the [ultra-religious] controlled religion in Israel," said Ya'akov Dahan, a member of the Eda Haredit, the haredi community's governing organization. But now Conservative and Reform Jews "are trying to get into the country, too. We don't know how to react to it."

Said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, "They're symbolically, and more than symbolically, driving us out of the gates of Jerusalem.

"Even in the former Soviet Union, Jews can pray in peace. To be excluded from the most important Jewish place in the world gives us some perspective on the issues. This isn't about freedom of worship; this is about where Israel is going."

Mainly, the reactions of the ultra-religious have taken two forms.

Haredi parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition introduced one bill this year that would cement in law an Orthodox monopoly on conversions performed in Israel. Another would give the entire Western Wall plaza the status of an Orthodox synagogue. As in Orthodox synagogues, a mechitzah, or separation, currently divides the men and women near the wall itself.

They also have promised to move forward with legislation preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from serving on the local councils that regulate much of religious life in Israel.

In a related matter, the minister of religious affairs, Eli Suissa, was dismissed by the prime minister this week after refusing to sign an order to appoint a Reform woman, Joyce Brenner, to the religious council in Netanya. Netanyahu signed the order himself following a recent High Court of Justice decision upholding the appointment.

Cabinet minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, who was slated to assume the religious affairs portfolio, said Tuesday it would be difficult for him to accept the post in light of Brenner's appointment.

In another development this week, a committee was expected to come up with a proposal acceptable to the three major Jewish movements, perhaps as early as today. The proposal is a response to pending legislation that would codify the Orthodox monopoly on conversions performed in Israel.

Made up of representatives of each of the movements, the committee was formed two months ago in an effort to avert a showdown on proposed legislation between Orthodox and liberal Jews here and in the United States.

The group, headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, reported is also considering the larger issue of recognition of non-Orthodox streams, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported this week.

According to that report, the proposal would establish a joint conversion school for all movements of Judaism but all conversions in Israel would be conducted by an Orthodox rabbinical court according to halachah, or Jewish law.

At the same time, Reform and Conservative synagogues would for the first time get government funding similar to that received by Orthodox synagogues.

It is not clear whether the Reform and Conservative movements would accept such a proposal because it would mean relinquishing their demand for equality in the area of personal-status issues, including marriage, divorce and conversion.

No one on the committee would comment on the Ha'aretz report, and Ne'eman reportedly was furious that it was leaked.

Regev, a committee member representing the Reform movement, declined to comment on the reported proposal, saying, "I really prefer to leave it to discussion in committee" rather than talk about it in a way "that may jeopardize the process."

Besides pushing their agenda in the legislative realm, the haredim have at times resorted to violence. On the Shavuot holiday in June, for example, they pelted a group of male and female worshippers with human excrement.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of those events, some leading haredi rabbis had put up posters in the Jewish Quarter asking people to refrain from violence.

But the possibility of violence prompted the country's Reform organizations to avoid the Wall plaza Monday, choosing to conduct their egalitarian prayer service elsewhere.

Conservative leaders, however, said they felt the only way to claim their right to pray freely was by exercising it.

Anxious to avoid a confrontation with the thousands of haredi men milling about the plaza Monday, police quickly broke up the non-Orthodox prayer group and herded its members forcibly through security gates at the plaza's entrance.

Shoving and swearing, the police then forced the group another hundred yards down a driveway leading to the Dung Gate out of the Old City as the Conservative Jews sang a Hebrew prayer calling on God to make peace in the heavens and within the nation of Israel.

The next day, the non-Orthodox group vowed to continue their struggle to hold egalitarian prayers, and accused the police of using unnecessary force when removing them on Tisha B'Av.

"Instead of dealing with the attackers, the police turned the victims into double victims, both of haredi Orthodox aggression and of police violence," Conservative Rabbi Ehud Bandel told Army Radio.

However, Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki defended the actions, saying they prevented a possible confrontation.

"There were thousands of worshippers present, and it looked as though their feelings were offended," he said, referring to the haredim.

Yitzhaki said the Conservative group had been informed that they could pray in the upper plaza, but "in accordance with the custom of the place," a reference to the separation of men and women.

Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative movement in Israel, said their legal adviser had been told by police that the group could conduct mixed prayers.

Although the service at the Kotel was organized by the Conservative movement, some Reform Jews participated, including Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center.

Monday's confrontation may be just the latest clash between the groups but it is perhaps the most poignant.

Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of the Jews' two ancient temples as well as a host of other calamities that happened on this date.

According to tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed nearly two millennia ago because of senseless hatred among Jewish factions.

"My Judaism means every bit as much to me as a Conservative Jew as it does to them as ultra-Orthodox," said David Breakstone, consoling his weeping teenage daughter, Elisheva.

"Even after 2,000 years, I see that the same hatred is still very much a part of our people, unfortunately."