There is perhaps no holy site in Israel that is more emblematic of the Jewish people’s bond with their religion than the Kosel. Ancient stones that have endured for millennia are a testament to the eternal link between the Jewish people and their Creator. It is no wonder that the Kosel is the repository of tears and prayers from Jews the world over.
It is also a symbol of the religious character of the Jewish country. Now, as threats to undermine that religious character mount, the urgency surrounding the need for pushback grows. And nowhere is the battle to safeguard the sanctity of Jewish law and tradition more pronounced than at the Kosel.
The Reform and Conservative movements in the United States have seized upon the rickety Bennett coalition, brimming with anti-Orthodox leftists eager to topple the religious status quo of the country. But they are being met head-on by activists within Israel who have long recognized the danger they pose and have mobilized to confront it.
A discussion with three of these heroes reveals how they are transforming “Save the Kosel” from a slogan into a mission. And how they hope to convince others that the time is now to keep the Kosel “beYadeinu.”
Mr. Chaim Rabinovitz worked with United Torah Judaism’s MK Yisroel Eichler in the Knesset for nine years. When the Chareidi parties went into the opposition last June, Mr. Rabinovitz drew on his extensive background in politics to work on projects to improve religious life in Israel. Chief among them was the preservation of the Kosel.
“I am very drawn to the Kosel project,” Mr. Rabinovitz said. “Because from the time the Kosel was liberated in the Six Day War until her last day, my mother would go to the Kosel every day at 3:00 a.m. to say Tehillim and daven Shacharis. I was extremely disturbed to see the threat of the Reform to the Kosel, and I said to myself that I am obligated to fight this with all my strength.”
Mr. Rabinovitz’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Knesset enables him to recognize the extent of the Reform’s infiltration into Israel’s governing parties. According to him, the Reform have been making huge inroads by meeting with Knesset members, both publicly and behind the scenes, to advance their agenda. “We know that there are meetings and progress. And now there is a Reform Knesset member from Labor and another from Blue and White. When this current government coalition was established, it was conditioned on proceeding with the Kosel Compromise.”
Because the Reform realize the precariousness of the current coalition, which spans Israel’s parties from right to left, they are rushing ahead to accomplish as much of their program as possible. “Knesset members are under huge pressure from Reform representatives to move the Kosel issue full speed ahead. The coalition heads themselves know that this government won’t last for a long time and are therefore trying to advance their agendas, like conversion and kashrut, very quickly.”
But the prize is the Kosel. And the springboard for future conquests. “The Reform want recognition,” Mr. Rabinovitz insists. “They realize that if they succeed in getting a portion of the Kosel, they will succeed in having control over all the other issues — conversion, marriage, kashrut, Shabbos. Oy lanu if that happens because then we will no longer have zechut for the existence of the state and for the existence of Judaism in the state.”
He is quick to point out that, despite already having a prayer space of their own, at the Ezrat Yisrael (near Robinson’s Arch, at the southern part of the Kosel), the Reform make very little use of it. “Today they have a place to pray but they don’t use it because they don’t really want a place for prayer. They want to fight against Judaism.”
Mr. Rabinovitz also warns of the danger of allowing the Reform to take over jurisdiction of the Ezrat Yisrael from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is what the Reform have set their sights on. They want to exert their own authority over that area, including control over the budget. “If you give them even one meter,” he says, “tomorrow it will be 10 meters.”
What can be done?
Educate people. And educate them now. Mr. Rabinovitz recommends a massive effort to alert the Chilonim (secular) in Israel to the dangers of the Reform.
“The 3 million-strong Chiloni public does not understand the problem. I’m not talking about the two million Israelis who oppose religion — the Arabs and the anti-religious. But there are more than 3 million Jews in Israel who are Masorati [traditional]. They light candles on Shabbos, make Kiddush, and then watch soccer. But they are traditional. They come to Selichos on Rosh Chodesh Elul. They want to live a Jewish life and they oppose assimilation. If you explain to them that if their mothers and grandmothers are allowed to throw candies at a bar mitzvah in the Kosel section with men and women together, it can cause this bar mitzvah boy to eventually intermarry, they will absolutely refuse to support it.”
Time is of the essence. Mr. Rabinovitz advocates an immediate and strong campaign to educate the Chilonim by helping groups like Liba Yehudit and individuals like Mati Dan, who have been tirelessly fighting against threats from the Reform. “They have been organizing demonstrations, conducting research, filing lawsuits, raising awareness all pro bono, and they need our help.”
“The Reform,” Mr. Rabinovitz says, “have money like water. And they are working and maneuvering behind the scenes. If anyone wants to save the Kosel, now is the time. Otherwise, it will be too late.”
Liba Yehudit is an Israeli organization founded in 2013 by educators and activists with the mission to strengthen the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, from the sanctity of Shabbos to the sanctity of the family to the sanctity of the Kosel.
From its inception, Liba Yehudit recognized outside threats that seek to undermine and transform the Jewish character of Israel’s citizens. And it is committed to fighting those dangers and ensuring that Israel remains “connected to its Judaism, its tradition, and its roots.”
Liba Yehudit’s director Oren Honig is candid about the severity of the threat that the Reform movement poses to Israel. “Groups like the Reform want to make our Jewish country into a country for all citizens. If we don’t fight back and involve the public, we will lose our Jewish country. For the Reform, the Kosel is the Archimedean point —the springboard to change the whole country. If their presence at the Kosel is legitimized, they will demand authority over conversion, marriage, kashrut, etc. Reform MK Gilad Kariv and the Reform understand that if they have a foothold in the Kosel they will have control in all of Israel.”
Honig explains why. “The Reform realize that at the rate they’re going, they won’t exist in another 50 years. They understand that they won’t disappear in Israel because they are all Jews, and they are trying to lure in the Masorati and the Chilonim. The Reform don’t even like Israel. They erased any mention of Yerushalayim in their siddurim, but they put it back because they want a place in Israel now.”
According to Honig, a limitless amount of funding has enabled the Reform to gain a stronghold and advance their agenda in Israel’s government, media, and Supreme Court, and even in Israel’s education system. “The Reform have infiltrated our education system and have incorporated lesson plans into the Misrad Hachinuch. But the Israeli public is unaware of it.”
The Israeli public, by and large, is also unsuspecting of the Reform’s support for far-left political positions that endanger the security of the State of Israel. “The public does not know that the Reform are aligned with BDS supporters, that they didn’t want ambassadors in a Jerusalem embassy and that they don’t support Israeli sovereignty over Ramat HaGolan. And they support the two-state solution.”
Warning the Israeli public of the consequences of inaction is a crucial part of Liba Yehudit’s strategy. While the Orthodox in Israel might be aware of the religious threat of the Reform, Honig does not believe the Chilonim perceive either the religious or the security threat. “The Chilonim don’t know about the Reform. Nor are they interested in them. But I think that if they understood how dangerous they are, they would oppose them.”
Making Liba Yehudit’s voice heard takes shape in many different forms. Publicity is key. Representatives travel around Israel to educate Chareidi communities and sponsor conferences with Rabbanim to discuss problems and possible solutions. They conduct extensive research to be ahead of the curve and prepared as developments evolve. And they work tirelessly at PR to inform the public through educational media clips and videos.
Honig is also not afraid to make noise. Literally. “Every month,” he says, “Women of the Wall try to turn our Kosel into a Reform temple, using a microphone to pray. It’s a disaster. So, every Rosh Chodesh we have a demonstration and arrange for hundreds of Orthodox people to come and bring our own microphones. We also get all the other Orthodox people davening at the Kosel to join in with us. The Reform end up being sidelined and aren’t even heard.”
In addition to enlisting feet on the ground, Liba Yehudit conducts extensive lobbying in the Knesset and reviews emerging laws. And it has an ongoing presence in the Israeli courts.
“Six years ago, when the government approved the Kosel Compromise, there was a very big struggle. Ultimately the government decided to abandon the project and the Reform approached the Supreme Court demanding that the law proceed. Liba Yehudit brought many lawsuits against the Reform over a period of years to block any execution of the deal. We sued, saying that this is a religious matter, and as such, the court does not have jurisdiction over it. Furthermore, any activity by the Reform at the Kosel would create a huge disturbance.”
Honig believes these lawsuits were effective. “They succeeded in preventing the Supreme Court from coming to a decision.” However, the threat persists and the Reform are not giving up.
But all these efforts cost money. The lawsuits themselves have run up a bill of upward of $1 million. And this is where American Orthodox Jews can help. “We need Jews to help us financially to stop the Reform from making inroads in Israel.”
Funding campaigns within Israel is paramount. And it needs to go hand in hand with positive reinforcement. “The Reform keep saying that if the Kosel compromise is not implemented, the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews will suffer. They are lying. The non-Orthodox are not the only Jews in the Diaspora. The Orthodox must speak out and declare that they are also Diaspora Jews and oppose any changes by the Reform.”
That also includes putting pressure on the Bennett coalition, which Honig blames for the current crisis and accuses of “working hard, hand in hand with the Reform groups.” When asked if there are any right-wing members of the coalition to be relied on, he replies, “No. We can only rely on two things: on Hakadosh Baruch Hu and on the people of Israel who need to be ready to throw out the government if it touches the Kosel. We must go out to the streets to protest against them.”
Mr. Mati Dan, as founder and chairman of Ateret Cohanim, has been working since 1977 to build up a Jewish presence in the heart of ancient Yerushalayim. This involvement has heightened his sensitivity to protect the sacredness of the Kosel from threats of the Reform Movement and ensure that it remains under halachic domain. “To divide the Kosel is to divide the nation. Every Jew has an obligation to stop the attempt to divide the Kosel and prevent it from having one side with a mechitzah and another side without.”
Mr. Dan underscores Israel’s Jewish identity and the role its citizens have in maintaining it. “What brings us back to Eretz Yisrael is the Torah. Many Israelis are not religious; they are Masorati. But though they might not be religious themselves, they love the fact that there are religious people in Israel and they do not oppose the Torah. They don’t fight with the religious because they understand that our nation and its religion are the same.”
“What is the Kosel to the Reform?” Mr. Dan asks. “Since when did it become a holy place for them? All these years, the Reform opposed returning to Eretz Yisrael. They don’t believe in the Beis HaMikdash. So why do they care about the Kosel now?”
Mr. Dan answers his own questions by pointing out that the Reform don’t come to the Kosel to pray. They come only to get recognition. “Behind the Kosel campaign is their desire to start a revolution against everything that is holy in Eretz Yisrael — nissuin, gerushin, giyur … To fight against this, we need to make a wall to save the Wall. We must enlist a wall of people who understand the Reform’s intent and are willing to stop it.”
Enlisting such a wall involves a strong PR initiative to educate about who the Reform are and what their goals are. “I don’t think there’s sufficient hasbarah. Many Masoratim think that Reform are like them. It’s very misleading because the Reform claim to daven and celebrate the holidays. No one does research to really understand what they are. American Jews understand. They need to be more involved and have a louder voice.”
Having a historical perspective strengthens the understanding of the religious precedent behind the Orthodox position. Mr. Dan explains that when the State of Israel was established, there was an agreement between the religious and irreligious stipulating that marriages and divorces would only be conducted al pi Torah and al pi beis din. “From Ben Gurion on,” Mr. Dan says, “there was a coalition between the religious and secular because they understood their responsibility for Israel’s future.”
Mr. Dan describes how this criterion extended to the Kosel even before the state was created. “In 1930, at the time of the British Mandate, there was also a court case about the Kosel involving the use of a mechitzah. The League of Nations sent in a judge who determined that the Rabbanut Hareishit was responsible for managing the Kosel.”
All this changed, explains Mr. Dan, after the Six Day War in 1967. The Reform began lobbying the Israeli government to start praying at the Kosel without a mechitzah, but the government continually opposed it. After years of unsuccessful efforts, Women of the Wall appeared on the scene and began showing up at the Kosel to pray with a sefer Torah. When they were challenged, they took their grievance to the courts. There they were countersued by Degel HaTorah and Shas, who pointed out that the courts are restricted from ruling in cases involving holy sites.
“But once the doors to the courts were opened, there was a balagan,” Mr. Dan says. “The protracted saga about the Kosel has been ongoing, and the Reform never gave up after all these years.”
Realizing the severity of the legal threat, Mr. Dan became involved in the fight, largely in the capacity of raising funds for the lawyers. “The courts are largely liberal and they have an agenda. If you don’t sue in court then you lose. You can’t sit quietly and not get involved because then it will snowball. And the judges will say, ‘Apparently it doesn’t bother people. If it really mattered to them, they would rise up and send a hundred lawyers, not one.’”
The 2016 Kosel Compromise initially gave the Reform reason to celebrate; however, it was quickly walked back when the Chareidi parties involved recognized the gravity of what was at stake. But while the tug of war over the Kosel has been simmering, the legal war never abated. Now, with the current coalition government heavily influenced by the Reform, that war is boiling over.
“Bennett hasn’t done anything yet because he’s scared,” Mr. Dan claims. “All the chareidim and the Masorati from the Likud — a million people — threatened to take to the streets if the government tries to implement changes at the Kosel. And that would include erecting one gate at the Kosel plaza for both the ‘Orthodox Kosel’ and the ‘non-Orthodox Kosel.’”
But Mr. Dan says that the fight is going to go back to the Supreme Court. “Even though it is beyond their jurisdiction, each time things end up back in the court we have to fight back. We don’t have the luxury of abandoning the fight because we think we’re already aware of the outcome. If we do this we will lose.”
But the cost involved in hiring lawyers is a huge and ongoing challenge. Over the years, American Jews have helped Mati Dan in this struggle and established an organization called Shomrei HaKosel, designed to accommodate tax-exempt donations. But the battle has reached crisis proportions with the relentless pressure from the Bennett government. And Mr. Dan is emotional when beseeching American Jews to help and pleads with them to “put your neshamah” into this fight.
“Every Orthodox Jew should budget an amount to help us with this struggle. All of the Kosel is holy and cannot be divided. If Hashem sees that we have mesirus nefesh, then we will have siyatta diShmaya. If we don’t give up, then we will win.”