Israel's High Court Sets Critical Hearing on non-Orthodox Prayer at Western Wall for July 30

After several postponements from Israeli government, hearing will force response after cabinet voted to cancel deal for egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

File photo: Jewish women praying at the women's section of the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, May 16, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

The High Court of Justice announced on Wednesday that a hearing in a pivotal case pertaining to the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Western Wall would be held on July 30. The government was given until July 12 to present its response to the petitioners who have demanded that the Reform and Conservative movements be allocated their own permanent prayer plaza at the Jewish holy site. 

The petitioners – the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group – welcomed the decision. Since their petition was submitted in September, the government has requested and received numerous extensions in its deadline to respond.

On Tuesday, two days after the government voted to suspend plans to build a permanent plaza for egalitarian prayer at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, it requested another delay, this time until July 27. Its last deadline was Sunday, which it missed.

In requesting yet another delay, the government did not mention that it had voted to backtrack on its original plan.

The petitioners notified the court that they did not agree to any further delays and requested that a hearing be scheduled as soon as possible, in order to force the government to finally respond. 

In their petition, the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall demanded that the government either fulfill its commitment to create a new and permanent prayer space for them near the area known as Robinson’s Arch, on the southern side of the Western Wall, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated prayer plaza to make room for them.

The three justices who will hear the case are Supreme Court president Miriam Naor, Yoram Danziger and Hanan Melcer.

The government’s reversal of its commitment to build a new prayer plaza at the Western Wall has sparked a major crisis with Diaspora Jewry. After the decision was announced, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which was convening in Jerusalem, cancelled a dinner that had been scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest. A delegation of leaders from the Reform movement also cancelled a meeting that had been planned with the prime minister.

The new chairman of the board of governors, Michael Siegal, told Haaretz that his quasi-governmental agency would be reassessing its ties with the Israeli government in wake of the decision.

The government had approved the plan for an egalitarian space in January 2016, following three years of negotiations. The plan was never implemented, however, because of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties that sit in the government.

Responding to the backlash, Netanyahu told world Jewish leaders that he plans to enlarge the temporary platform at the Western Wall that was put up several years ago to serve non-Orthodox worshippers. Their response was that they do not consider that an acceptable solution because the area would still be hidden from visitors and under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

Responding to the court announcement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said it was a “clear signal to the government that it was time to stop dragging its feet and sending out mixed messages about the Western Wall.”

Anat Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall, expressed hope that the court would come through for her organization and the other petitioners. “By voiding the Kotel agreement, the state has no response to any of our legal cases,” she said. "The state will no longer be able to dodge its duty to ensure women’s rights to freedom of religion at the Kotel.