In a strong rebuke to the ultra-Orthodox custodian of the Western Wall, the High Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that women are not to be subjected any longer to intense body searches when entering the Western Wall.
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Participants in the prayer services organized by Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational feminist prayer group, have in recent months been pulled aside during security checks and forced to take off parts of their clothing to determine whether they have been smuggling in Torah scrolls in violation of rules at the Jewish holy site.
These unusual body searches have been conducted at the instruction of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall.
Responding to a petition demanding that women be allowed to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Western Wall, the High Court of Justice wrote in Wednesday’s decision: “It is the responsibility of the rabbi in charge of the Kotel to prevent searches on the women who have petitioned and on others like them beyond the regular security checks conducted on all those who come to the Kotel.”
Rabinowitz, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – the institution in charge of religious protocol at the site – does not allow worshippers to bring their own Torah scrolls to the Kotel. He does, however, maintain a stock of several dozen scrolls in the men’s prayer area for use at the site. Repeated requests by women’s groups to gain access to these scrolls have been denied.
The petition to allow women to bring their own scrolls to the Western Wall was submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice, an organization that promotes women’s rights in Israel, on behalf of a group of four women who split off from Women of the Wall and founded their own organization, which they call Original Women of the Wall. The split was prompted by the decision taken by Women of the Wall’s board to enter into negotiations with the government over a plan for an egalitarian prayer space that would have forced them to move their monthly service out of the women’s section.
The court gave the respondents – Rabinowitz, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Ministry for Religious Services, and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s office – 30 days to explain why the petitioners cannot pray as they wish in the women’s section, or alternatively, allow them to pray in another area on the premises that provides similar proximity to the Western Wall.
The case is being heard by three Supreme Court justices: Elyakim Rubinstein, Yoram Danziger and Uzi Fogelman. In their decision, the justices also acknowledged that the area currently designated for egalitarian prayer services, known as Robinson’s arch, is inferior to the traditional gender-segregated plaza. “There has yet to be found a full alternative solution that provides similar access to the Western Wall as does the traditional prayer plaza,” they wrote, noting that Robinson’s arch does not currently fulfill this criterion.
Last January, the cabinet approved a plan to build a new plaza near Robinson’s arch for mixed services, equal in visibility and access to the traditional gender-segregated area. Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from implementing this decision.
Several months ago, the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, together with Women of the Wall, have petitioned the High Court demanding that the government either build them a permanent egalitarian space, as promised, or re-divide the existing gender-separated space to make room for mixed-prayer services.
Because of the overlap between the two petitions, the High Court announced in its latest decision that both would be heard together. It did not set a date for a hearing, though. A third petition submitted several months ago by an Orthodox organization that opposes the plan for an egalitarian prayer space would be heard at the same time, the court said.
Responding to today’s decision, Susan Weiss, the executive director of CWJ, said: “I’m thrilled that the High Court is finally starting to listen to the voices of women who want to pray at the Western Wall as Jews. I pray that the state finally recognizes this right as an absolute one.”
Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said the High Court’s decision reflected “both courage and wisdom.”
“Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the wall,” she said. “I am elated because when I was looking for justice, and then courage, they were missing, and now the highest court in the land has shown me both.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, also welcomed the High Court’s decision. “It sends a clear message that discrimination at the Western Wall must end,” he said. “The court has made clear that the Kotel is not the personal playground of the Western Wall rabbi or the Chief Rabbinate.
He expressed hope that the government would “internalize the criticism that appears between the lines of the court decision and work toward achieving greater equality at the holiest prayer site that exists for the entire Jewish people.”
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said the court decision proves that the Western Wall custodian had no authority to order body searches on women. “This is how the beginning of the end of the Orthodox monopoly at the Kotel looks,” he said.
Rabinowitz said in response: “We are studying the decision and will address it.”