JERUSALEM Amid outrage across the Jewish diaspora over Israel's flurry of recent arrests of women seeking to pray at the Western Wall with ritual garments in defiance of Israeli law Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to study the issue and suggest ways to make the site more accommodating to all Jews.
The move comes after more than two decades of civil disobedience by a group called Women of the Wall against regulations, legislation and a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that allow for gender division at the wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites, and prohibit women from carrying a Torah or wearing prayer shawls there.
Although the movement has struggled to gain traction in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox retain great sway over public life, the issue has deepened a divide between the Jewish state and the Jewish diaspora at a time when Israel is battling international isolation over its settlement policy. Critics, particularly leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, complain that the government's recent aggressive enforcement of restrictions at the wall has turned a national monument into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
"The prime minister thinks the Western Wall has to be a site that expresses the unity of the Jewish people, both inside Israel and outside the state of Israel," Ron Dermer, Netanyahu's senior adviser, said in an interview Tuesday. "He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry. This is an important component of Israel's strength."
Sharansky, whose quasi-governmental nonprofit organization handles immigration for the state and is a bridge between Israel and Jews around the world, said Netanyahu had asked him Monday to take up the matter and that he expected to have recommendations within "a few months."
He and Dermer said the agenda would include improvements for Robinson's Arch, a discreet area of the wall designated for coed prayer under the court ruling, and the easing of restrictions in the larger area known as the Western Wall plaza, along with the more sensitive questions regarding prayer at the main site.
Sharansky said the Jewish Agency itself stopped having ceremonies for new immigrants in the plaza about two years ago after the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the site, said men and women could not sit together.
Under pressure from the international groups that provide its financing, the agency on Oct. 30 passed a resolution calling for a "satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall."
Asked whether he could imagine a day when women could wear prayer shawls and read Torah at the wall itself, Sharansky said, "I imagine very easily a situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the state of Israel in a way he or she wants, without undermining the other.
"That's as much as I want to say at this moment," he added. "Now I have to share this vision with the appropriate bodies."
Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and widely respected figure, has been called upon before to broker peace with the diaspora over questions of religious pluralism, most recently during a harsh fight over conversion.
Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, reacted with cautious optimism to Netanyahu's initiative, but said it would not stop the Israel Religious Action Center, of which she is executive director, from filing a Supreme Court petition as soon as next week challenging the makeup of the heritage foundation's board.
"It's a good thing that after 24 years the highest echelons in Israel are actually paying attention to this rift that is breaking diaspora Jews from Israel," she said. "The table that should run the Western Wall should have everyone who has an interest in the wall sitting around it."
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the heritage foundation, said in an email that he was unaware of the Sharansky initiative and therefore "does not have an opinion about it."