Time With Sharansky
Spending time with Natan Sharansky as I did a week ago helps one understand Avrohom Avinu. “Vayakam Avraham mei’al pnei meiso” – Avrohom arose from before his dead. Avraham did not take the loss of his wife in stride. He turned it into an opportunity to propel himself even higher in his avodas Hashem. Listening to Sharansky handle a crowd, you realize how much he gained from the years in the gulag where his captors tried to break him, but during which he instead inflicted irreversible damage on the Soviet system.
Sharansky, as one of the icons of the last half of the twentieth century, can electrify a gathering simply on the strength of his story. I have met him a number of times previously; this was the first time that I saw what adversity had done for him. His mission in the US is not enviable. Prime Minister Netanyahu hand-picked him to defuse an issue that threatens what remains of a face of unity that Jewish allies of Israel show the rest of the world, at a time that Israel must deal with a number of extraordinary threats. The feelings and fervor invested by both sides in the battle for the Kotel sometimes eclipse all other concerns, even existential ones. He accepted the job, knowing that there were no easy solutions. “My job,” as he put it, “was not to make everyone happy, but not to leave them terribly unhappy.”
Having stared down the Soviet oppressor for years, he is unfazed by powerful dissenters, confident that his will can prevail. He owned the room – a room full of some pretty outspoken and strong-willed clergy of all colors of stripes (and one black stripe.) It was a small gathering at Federation of rabbis of all denominations. Attendance was by invitation. He was able to cut through the posturing and the irrelevant, and get to the real point, a skill likely developed in his many years of having to focus in his cell on what was really important to him.
His take on the Kotel and his manner of presenting were fascinating. I will share the points that should be most interesting to our readers.
“There are no villains.” This was the most powerful sentence he uttered, and it completely transformed the meeting from one of posturing and confrontation, to one of sincere listening. I know that I came to the meeting, hoping to “score” the most “points” for the right side. I can’t suppose that those on the other side, i.e. everyone else, had any different purpose. Yet, that one line moved the meeting to a different place. Everyone could ease up a bit, because they knew they did not have to fight to justify their position. He had already conceded its validity.
He explained his modus operandi. By listening for weeks to voices from both sides, he was able to detect the issues that were of the greatest concern. He realized that for us, the Orthodox, it was maintaining the Kotel as a halachic makom tefilah. For the non-Orthodox, it was feeling that they, with their belief system, are stakeholders in Israel who cannot be treated as second-class citizens. He realized that he could give both sides their key desire – but not more.
Before explaining how he would do that, he fleshed out the two positions, and why he understood both. He recounted how he was finally freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986. He was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. The first stop, of course, was the Kotel. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as Avital was shunted off to the women’s side of the mechitzah. People thrust some tefilos at him to say – but he knew nothing of them, wanting only to use the Tehilim that had accompanied him in prison. He did not convey this with any resentment. (Avital is frum, as are his kids. When he goes to shul, he told us, it is to an Orthodox one.) He understood at that moment that the Kotel serves as a place to pray for those who believe in prayer. But it also serves as a powerful focus of non-religious Jewish yearning and aspiration. The analogy used by frum people of Muslims attempting to pray at the Vatican is not appropriate, he said. The Vatican has no meaning other than a religious one, as a historical center of Christianity. It does not tug at other forms of self-identification. This is not true of the Kotel, he argued.
He arrived at his sense of the two positions after listening to many people on both sides, in person and by email. There were 10,000 of the latter. Initially, they were mostly on the non-Orthodox side; by now, he said, the Orthodox are catching up. His “no villains” line owes to the presentations of people on both sides, particularly leaders. Those leaders, he said, all act and think responsibly, including doing their best to preclude violence.
His compromise, therefore, was to create two spaces at the Kotel, one for each way of understanding it. The Orthodox would continue to use the existing area (everything to the left of the Mughrabi ramp), under the auspices of the Rav HaKotel. Nothing would change. To the right of the ramp, the government would create a platform of comparable size for the non-Orthodox. It would be accessible 24/7. Control would be in the hands of a mixed board, which would include Jewish Agency representation, and through it, Reform and Conservative rabbis outside of Israel would have a voice. Everyone would enter the general Kotel area through a common entrance. Key permits for the beginning of construction are already in place. A third area – the Kotel “plaza” – has been used for many years for non-religious ceremonies, such as IDF inductions. Recently, some in the charedi community have tried to insist that there be separate seating at such events. He insisted that this was unacceptable; the Western Wall Heritage Foundation oversight of this area would have to change to include more voices, who would not permit the imposition of such rules.
He credited R Rabinowitz, the Rav HaKotel, with working to convey to charedi leadership how damaging violence and ugly confrontation will be to charedi interests. According to Sharansky, it was R Rabinowitz who convinved Rav Ovadiah shlit”a not to come to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Tamuz. Such an appearance would have drawn an estimated 100,000 people – and who knows what the other side would then do to spin it to their advantage.
On the other hand, he did not shy away from dishing it out to all parties. “Dishing it out” is an infelicitous way of describing it. He used so much finesse, and so much warmth in his voice that was free of any condescension, that it might be better describe as delicately spooning it out. For example, he said that it was a bad move on the part of charedim to push for the arrest of WOW members for saying kaddish at the Kotel. It created an avalanche of bad PR for the traditionalist side, and more importantly, launched the current match of reciprocal outrages that led to each side pulling back from the compromise, fearful of what next step would be taken by the opposing side. In the other direction, he quipped that last Rosh Chodesh a few thousand seminary girls came to the Kotel who knew how to daven but not how to demonstrate. They were opposed by sundry politicians who knew how to demonstrate, but not how to daven!
More startling was the response he gave to a questioner who asked what they in the US could do to support his efforts. He said that they should do more to support the State, taking a cue from the Orthodox. “When you want to build in Israel, you come to us at the Jewish Agency for financial assistance. The Orthodox build institutions all the time – and don’t ask us for funding.” He also let on that it would not be a bad idea to every now and then credit Bibi Netanyahu for the good things he does. “Bibi knows that no matter what he does, the non-Orthodox are not going to praise him.”
He called himself a citizen of both Israel and the Diaspora simultaneously, and he understands the quirks of both. Jews in Israel have to learn, he said, that they still have to be Jewish! Diaspora Jews have an advantage over Israelis in their ability to sit and talk to those with whom they completely disagree. At least sometimes. He pointed to his own experience while incarcerated in the Soviet Union. Different – and competing – organizations sprang up to work for liberating Soviet Jewry. Some of their leaders gained access to him in jail. On several occasions, he needed to send information back to the US about conditions in Russia. He had to risk the safety of multiple people at times to send identical information to two organizations headquartered on the same street in Manhattan, because it was certain that what one organization received would not be shared with the other. The animosity between the two ran very deep. Yet, the Soviets didn’t see it that way. They once accosted him with a list of foreign agitators working on his behalf. There was only one list – and it combined the names of people working for both of the NY organizations.
Those organizations saw themselves as separate and distinct, but to the enemies of Klal Yisrael, there was no distinction. They targeted everyone dedicated to the cause of the Jewish people. He suggested that there was a lesson in this for all of us.
It is difficult to focus on what we share in common as Women of the Wall escalate their antics each month. On the other hand, knowing that someone close to the Prime Minister understands much more of the full picture than we might think is reassuring. It might give us the confidence to define for ourselves the objective that is most important, i.e. preservation of the Kotel as an authentic makom kodesh, while resisting the temptation to be drawn into the provocations of Anat Hoffman et al, which is counterproductive to our interests. Reform claimed a victory in today’s demonstration, in which far greater numbers of WOW supporters showed up than previously, and far fewer charedim. This, however, is spin that will quickly wobble. The real picture that emerges – and cannot be lost on Israelis, including those in the government – is one of a huge population that deeply cherishes and makes frequent use of the kedushah of the place, contrasting with a group of agitators who have worked without success at building up interest in their cause for twenty years. The latter have succeeded in attracting sympathy only when met with violence from charedi outliers.
All of this suggests a different course of action than the one some people have been taking.