Israel's High Court Hands State Three-week Deadline to Explain Impasse in Western Wall Deal

Close to 20,000 Reform, Conservative Jews bombard Israeli leaders with email protests over High Holy Days.

Group of women putting Tefillin on at the Western Wall.
Sebastian Scheiner

The Israeli government has been issued a three-week deadline to explain why it has not followed through with its decision to create a new space at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. 

The November 17 deadline was set by the High Court of Justice earlier this week, in response to a petition submitted against the state by the Reform and Conservative movements, together with Women of the Wall – the multidenominational feminist prayer group – and several Israeli non-profits engaged in promoting religious freedom.

After hearing the government’s counter-arguments, the High Court will hold a special session before ruling on whether to force its hand. At that session, it will hear an appeal by an organization opposed to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. That organization, the Liba Center, is a non-profit dedicated to preserving the dominance of Orthodoxy in Israeli religious life. Liba submitted a petition to the High Court against the Western Wall deal several months ago.

Earlier this month, the non-Orthodox Jewish movements, together with their organizational partners, submitted a petition to the High Court demanding that the government either build them a new egalitarian space on the southern side of the Western Wall as promised, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-separated spaces on the northern side to make room for mixed-prayer services. The government had approved the plan for a new egalitarian space in January, but under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from implementing it.

The ultra-Orthodox oppose granting formal recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements, which they regard as illegitimate, at the Jewish holy site.

In a related development, according to estimates obtained by Haaretz, close to 20,000 Reform and Conservative Jews from around the world sent emails to Israeli government leaders over the High Holy Day period, urging them to follow through with the Western Wall deal. The emails were part of an organized campaign by the non-Orthodox movements to pressure the Israeli government into action. According to a leading organizer in the campaign, the original objective had been to generate 25,000 emails. “We are very close to that,” he said, “so we are certainly not disappointed by the outcome, and we know that at least two-third of our rabbis mentioned the Kotel at their High Holy Day sermons.”

Members of the Reform movement were encouraged to make use of a letter drafted by their leaders, which concludes with the following warning: “To millions of Jews in Israel and around the world the Kotel is the symbol of our eternal connection to the Land of Israel and that, in-spite of our differences, we are one people. I fear that if you continue to use this symbol of Jewish unity as a political bargaining chip and a wedge to pull the Jewish people apart the results could be dire and irreversible. Jews from New York to London to Johannesburg to Hong Kong are watching with great interest to learn if they are truly part of ‘Am Yisrael’ or if they will continue to be treated as second class Jews in the eyes of the Jewish State.” 

Reform and Conservative Jews had been urged to forward their emails to four Israeli leaders: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett (who also serves as education minister). 

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements say they hope the email campaign will deter the government from altering or revoking its decision to create an egalitarian prayer space when preparing its response to the High Court.

The heads of the world Reform and Conservative movements will be in Jerusalem next week attending the annual Board of Governors meeting of the Jewish Agency. The keynote speaker at the opening plenary session will be Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who will be asked to respond to questions about the government’s intentions regarding the Western Wall. So, too, will Israel Knesset members during a series of informal meetings scheduled for next Tuesday.

Earlier that day, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements will participate in a morning prayer service at the Western Wall, organized by Women of the Wall, to mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Heshvan. They plan to use the opportunity to draw public attention to their grievances against the Israeli government.

In their petition filed earlier this month, the non-Orthodox movements requested that the High Court force a change in the composition of the board in charge of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the organization responsible for the administration of the Jewish holy site. Specifically, they demand that representatives of the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, who hold many of the seats, be replaced by members of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements and women’s organizations.