Israel Drafts New Plan for Western Wall, but Denies non-Orthodox Groups Jurisdiction

The renovation ostensibly would make amends with the Reform and Conservative movements that want an egalitarian prayer space, but these streams say the new plan drastically falls short

Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Jerusalem, May 17, 2017.
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

The government recently drafted plans for a multimillion-dollar overhaul of the southern section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall to accommodate egalitarian prayer services, documents submitted by the state to the High Court on Monday reveal.

The initiative reflects the government’s effort to make amends with the Reform and Conservative movements after voting last month to suspend a previous agreement that would have provided them not only with a new and permanent space for mixed prayer services at the site, but also with jurisdiction over it.

The decision last month sparked a major crisis with Diaspora Jews, many of whom felt betrayed.

Details of the new government initiative emerged in the state’s response to a petition to the High Court of Justice. In a petition submitted in September, the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall, the multidenominational feminist prayer group, demanded that the state fulfill its commitment to allocate them a permanent area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

In its response, the state urged the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was no longer relevant following the vote to suspend the Western Wall deal. Beyond that, the state noted that the government was determined to fulfill some of the elements of the agreement.

The Reform and Conservative movements dismissed the state’s response as completely unacceptable.

According to the court documents, in late June, officials in the Prime Minister’s Bureau agreed to pay the Israel Antiquities Authority 19.2 million shekels ($5.4 million) to upgrade the prayer plaza routinely used by Conservative and Reform worshippers near the archaeological excavation site known as Robinson’s Arch. The Antiquities Authority promised to have the job done in 10 months. The agreement was reached a few days before the cabinet met to vote on suspending the Western Wall deal.

Netanyahu came under pressure to suspend the deal, which had been approved in January 2016, from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. They were mainly opposed to awarding jurisdiction to the Conservative and Reform movements over the area. Today, the entire area is under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

In its response, the state addressed a separate demand by a group of women who defected from Women of the Wall – known as Original Women of the Wall – that they be allowed to bring Torah scrolls into the women’s section of the Western Wall. The state rejected the demand, saying that women who wished to read from a Torah scroll at the Wall should do so in the area designated for egalitarian prayer.

The state submitted its response following numerous requests for extensions, which were granted. The High Court is scheduled to hear the case on July 30.

“The state’s response to the High Court is not surprising,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel. “It is simply disgraceful. A government that does not fulfill agreements it signs with the Jewish people is a government that has lost its moral authority to declare that it represents the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the plan revealed in the court documents “would entrench our status as second-class Jews.” The proposed prayer plaza would not provide direct access to the Western Wall for non-Orthodox worshippers, he said.

Kariv expressed shock that the government had never shared its plans to revamp the area with the non-Orthodox movements.

Anat Hoffman, the head of Women of the Wall, also rejected the government initiative. “We are not buying the substitute Kotel agreement that the state is trying to sell to the High Court,” she said, referring to the Wall.

"We hope that the High Court will insist on our right to receive a prayer plaza in which we can pray according to our custom, whether by full implementation of the agreement, or by redividing the current prayer plaza into three sections — men’s, women’s and egalitarian.”

Orly Erez-Likhovsky, the attorney from the Israel Religious Action Center who represented the petitioners, said: “We insist on what we petitioned for — full implementation of the agreement, or an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall Plaza, where Women of the Wall can pray according to their custom.”