Israel's Top Court Signals It Will Back State Against Reform, Conservative Jews in Western Wall Controversy

Among the questions asked by High Court justices: 'How can you be so sure it's a bad solution if you haven't even seen it yet?' and 'What has to be done to satisfy you? For the Western Wall rabbi to personally present you with a Torah scroll?'

Reform Jews at the Western Wall
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Israeli Supreme Court indicated on Sunday that it would not force the government to implement the full plan it had approved and later suspended for an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalems Western Wall – provided that it moved ahead with certain elements of it. 

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Attorneys representing the state notified the court that the government was determined to expand and upgrade the existing egalitarian plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, and that a detailed plan for the project would be submitted in April by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the attorneys said, would be asked to provide their feedback.

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At the same time, the seven-justice panel, sitting as the High Court of Justice, criticized the state for not acting more vigilantly to prevent regular occurrences of violence and desecration at the Western Wall.

The justices were shown several video clips documenting recent clashes at the Jewish holy site. One clip showed Women of the Wall worshippers being cursed and shouted at while holding their monthly prayer service in the womens section. Another clip showed an ultra-Orthodox protester tearing up a prayer book published by Women of the Wall. Yet another showed scuffles between security personnel and non-Orthodox protesters carrying Torah scrolls to the prayer plaza, in defiance of regulations at the site. 

It is very very regretful that not more is being done to prevent such scenes, lamented Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. Its not enough to say that youre doing all you can.

Added Justice Hanan Melcer: Someone who tears up a prayer book should be prosecuted immediately. 

The court held a four-and-a-half hour hearing on three separate petitions concerning prayer at the Western Wall. The main petition was submitted by the non-Orthodox movements and the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall against the government for reneging on the so-called Western Wall deal, which was approved in January 2016 but suspended late last June, in response to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition. The petitioners have asked the court to either force the government to fulfill its commitment or to have the existing gender-segregate prayer plazas at the northern side of the Western Wall redivided to make room for non-Orthodox worshippers.

As part of the original deal, the government had committed to expand and renovate the temporary prayer plaza located at the southern expanse of the Western Wall near the archeological excavation known as Robinsons Arch.  The deal stipulated that the refurbished prayer plaza would be fully visible to worshippers visiting the Western Wall and share the same entrance with the gender-segregated prayer spaces. It also envisioned the creation of a new public authority that would administer the egalitarian prayer space and would include representatives of the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall.

The government has said it intends to go ahead with plans to expand and renovate the existing egalitarian prayer space but has made no such commitment regarding the other elements of the deal. Those other elements, it has argued, are not an essential part of the agreement. The petitioners, however, argue otherwise. The expanded panel, comprised of seven justices, appeared to accept the states position. 

Hayut asked the attorney representing the petitioners why she was so opposed to the alternative plan being pursued by the state. How can you be so sure its a bad solution if you havent even seen it yet? Hayut asked.
 
Suggesting that the petitioners were pre-occupied with trivial matters, Justice Isaac Amit asked: Are we not arguing here about mere symbols?

In a similar vein, Justice Noam Sohlberg asked with irony: What has to be done to satisfy you? For the Western Wall rabbi to personally present you with a Torah scroll?

The justices pressed the state attorneys for details about the construction schedule for the upgraded egalitarian prayer space, suggesting that they considered this element of the plan crucial.  

The second petition heard by the High Court, submitted by the Center for Womens Justice on behalf of a group of women who split off from Women of the Wall, concerned the right of women to read from Torah scrolls in the womens section of the Western Wall. A third petition was submitted by Liba, an Orthodox right-wing group that opposes the allocation of any space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. 

The High Court of Justice held a first hearing in the case in late August. It is not expect to hold any more hearings before delivering its verdict.

Following the hearing, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, accused the state of misrepresenting the situation on the ground. To claim that the deal is being implemented, at least the physical aspects of its, is not only far from the truth, but it is outright deception, he said. 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said: We believe and hope that the court will eventually understand that the governments plans are insufficient and discriminate against millions of Jews around the world and in Israel. He promised that the non-Orthodox movements would continue to wage battle in the legal and public spheres in order to reach a situation in which all Jews and all Jewish communities can pray according to their customs at the Western Wall.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Woman of the Wall, said the hearing deepened and amplified the understanding that the original deal "is the only fair solution to all."

"The solutions offered today, she added, "would all be submission to an extreme ultra-Orthodox minority. which took over the most valuable national resource that belongs to Am Yisrael and all Jews around the world.