The Jerusalem District Court ruled Thursday that women praying at the Western Wall with prayer shawls and tefillin does not constitute a violation of “local custom” or a provocation, and therefore, no justification exists for detaining and interrogating women who engage in these practices.
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The ruling is a major victory for the Women of the Wall organization in its ongoing battle against police and the Orthodox authorities in charge of prayer rules at the holy site.
The district court also ruled that contrary to police interpretations of a previous Supreme Court ruling, there is no prohibition preventing women from holding their own prayer services at the Western Wall nor any requirement that they congregate instead at the nearby Robinson’s Arch.
In his decision, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel upheld a ruling handed down two weeks ago by the Jerusalem Magistrate Court, which rejected a request by police to issue an injunction preventing five women - all activists in Women of the Wall who were detained at the organization’s last service for wearing prayer shawls - from praying at the Kotel for three months.
Over the past six months, police have clamped down on Women of the Wall, detaining worshippers at the organization’s services virtually every month for wearing prayer shawls and praying out loud.
Sobel - an Orthodox Jew himself - wrote in his decision that, contrary to police interpretations, Women of the Wall were not in violation of the law requiring worshippers to abide by “local custom” when praying at the wall.
Citing previous judicial rulings and commentary, Sobel wrote: “There is no reasonable suspicion that the respondents violated a prohibition in the law governing holy sites, an essential component of which is ‘conducting a religious ceremony not according to local custom.’”
Sobel also ruled that women praying at the wall were not a disturbance of the peace, as police maintained, and that, therefore, there was no reason to impose any limitations on their movement at the holy site.
The district court judge noted that police have interpreted a Supreme Court ruling, handed down in 2003, as ordering Women of the Wall to hold their prayers services at Robinson’s Arch. That ruling, wrote Sobel, “is not an order but rather a recommendation.” Moreover, he noted, the Supreme Court ruling had required the state to clean up Robinson’s Arch and turn it into a proper area of prayer within 12 months – a requirement has still not been fulfilled. In light of both these stipulations, Sobel wrote, “the aforementioned [Supreme Court] verdict should not be seen as an absolute order . . . the violation of which entails criminal responsibility.”
In a statement issued in response to Sobel’s decision, David Barhoum and Einat Horovitz, the two lawyers representing Women of the Wall, wrote: “The decision clearly cries out to the authorities to change their approach to prayer by Women of the Wall.”
Horovitz said the most significant element of the ruling was the decision that Women of the Wall prayer practices are not in violation of “local custom.”
“The court has rejected any reasonable cause for a policy of repeated detainment and arrests of Women of the Wall by police,” she said.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the women’s organization, said in response: “Today Women of the Wall liberated the Western Wall for all Jewish people. We did it for the 8-year-old girl who can now dream of having her Bat Mitzvah at the wall and for the grandmother who cannot climb on a chair to see her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. We did it for the great diversity of Jews in the world, all of whom deserve to pray according to their belief and custom at the Western Wall.
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said he will look into the ruling and consult with state's legal representative to examine its consequences.
"The Western Wall is the last unifying place we have," he said. "It is easy to enflame the Western Wall it divineness. It is much more difficult to the find the middle route that will allow everyone to feel included and wanted at the Western Wall."
"I beg the authorities as well as the silent majority who care deeply for the Wall, to prevent extremists from turning it into a site of antagonism between brothers," Rabinowitz added.
'Women needlessly abused for years'
In the wake of the decision, Knesset Member Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to review the matter and issue a legal opinion that would eliminate any discrepancies in the legal system over the matter of the "local custom." She warned that the incongruity may aggravate the conflict.
"I have said all along that the court's rulings must be upheld," added Lavie, who heads the Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women. "Today's ruling indicates that the Women of the Wall have been needlessly abused for all these years during as they attempted to pray.
"I would like to clarify that that the issue at hand has not to do with Jewish law but with the (state's) law. In light of the new ruling, the police must avoid making arrests."
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in response: “The decision of the District Court and the reactions to it only strengthen the need for a sustainable, agreed solution, which will allow every Jew to feel at home at the Western Wall, as the basis for any resolution. An agreed solution reached through dialogue, understanding and mutual compromise will ensure that the Western Wall remains a symbol of unity for the entire Jewish people.”
Sharansky added: “Now that we have an agreed outline, I call on all the sides to move forward and implement it.”
The Jewish Agency chairman recently announced his plan for resolving the ongoing dispute over prayer at the wall. The plan calls for creating a natural extension of the existing prayer area to include a new section for egalitarian prayer services. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week requested that Sharansky, together with two of his top aides, draft a timetable for implementing it.
The women detained on April 11 at the Rosh Chodesh prayer service were Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall; Bonnie Ras, assistant director of communications for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Silvie Rosenbaum, Sharona Kramer and Rabbi Valerie Stessin, who was the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in Israel.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti-Conservative movement in Israel, called the decision “a victory for common sense and a wake-up call for the Israeli police, which for years have been a toy in the hands of the Kotel rabbi.”