Israeli Attorney General Intends to Ban Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Planned for Thursday

Letter to Conservative, Reform movement leaders constitutes a reversal of position after Avichai Mendelblit allowed multiple prayer sessions in last months.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters argue with Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.
Emil Salman

In a reversal of policy, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced Wednesday that he intends to ban the joint male-female prayer service at Jerusalem's Western Wall scheduled for Thursday by the Reform and Conservative Judaism movements .

The non-Orthodox movements have held two such prayer sessions over the last month, with Mendelblit's approval. The purpose of the services, held in the Western Wall plaza adjacent to the separate prayer areas for men and women, is to protest the stalled discussions over the creation of an egalitarian prayer section at the Wall.

The "special egalitarian prayer" service was planned for Thursday at 8:30 A.M. The normal prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at 7 A.M. is not expected to be affected by Mendelblit's announcement.

Ahead of Thursday's scheduled prayer service, the Religious Services Ministry's Legal Adviser, Israel Pat, wrote a letter to the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements informing them that he did not intend to allow any more prayer sessions. Pat invited them to respond to the letter in a meeting Wednesday evening.

According to Pat, who acts in coordination with Mendelblit, he had been informed of a protocol banning prayer in the plaze since the last time he had allowed a joint prayer session. The protocol, which the Western Wall rabbi brought to Pat's attention, bans prayer in the public zone of the plaza, where military and other non-religious ceremonies are held. It was pubished three years ago

"The plaza in general is not meant for prayer and religious ceremonies, but for regular visits, regardless of the nature of prayer or religious ceremony," wrote Pat.

As an alternative, he suggested that the movements hold their prayer meeting at the southern portion of the wall under Robinson's Arch, an area that was originally earmarked for the non-Orthodox movements. That government decision was frozen due to opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Pat wrote that "work is expected to begin in the coming days on the southern Western Wall," a statement that echoed the state response to a High Court session on the issue with week.

"Even today," Pat wrote, "there is an alternative that allows basic conditions for prayer," within the space designated for egalitarian prayer. "In light of all the above, we intend to make a decision that at this time, after reaching a balance between all the involved interests, there should be no prayer at the Western Wall plaza."

Despite the ban, the non-Orthodox movements said they intended to convene at the same time and at the same place, but without holding a conventional prayer service, so as not to be perceived as breaking the law.

“No one can prohibit us from praying in our hearts, speaking words of Torah and reciting poems,” they said in a joint statement issued in response.

They also said that “in the coming days,” they would file a suit in the High Court “to put an end once and for all to the bullying manner with which the custodian of the Western Wall has taken control of this site that is holy to the entire Jewish people.”

In their statement, the Reform and Conservative movement leaders said that the attorney general’s decision lacked any judicial basis. They noted that the Jerusalem District Court had ruled more than three years ago that pluralistic prayer practices were not a violation of “local custom” at the Western Wall. 

“From this, it is clear that it is not possible to prohibit mixed prayer services in the upper plaza, since this is not a religious ritual that violates local custom,” they wrote.

The Reform and Conservative movements have grown increasingly frustrated in recent months by the government’s resistance to move ahead with plans to build a special prayer space for them in the southern expanse of the Western Wall, as approved in January. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under mounting pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to pull out of the agreement.

The attorney general’s decision to ban the Reform and Conservative movements from holding a prayer service in the upper plaza appears to have brought the issue to a head, since until now, the movement leaders have threatened to take their case to the High Court, but had not provided a precise timeframe. 

The movements intend to demand from the court that the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces at the Western Wall be re-divided into three sections: one for men, one for women, and one for mixed-prayer services.