Ahead of Deadline, Israel Scrambles to Explain Failure to Uphold Western Wall Promise

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Orthodox put up a temporary divider in the Robinson's Arch section of the Western Wall to challenge the site's designation as a place for Reform and Conservative prayer, October 20, 2016.
Orthodox put up a temporary divider in the Robinson's Arch section of the Western Wall to challenge the site's designation as a place for Reform and Conservative prayer, October 20, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit convened a critical meeting on Thursday afternoon to formulate the state’s response to a question that has baffled and angered many in the Jewish world: Why has the government not fulfilled its commitment to set aside a section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer services?

The High Court – responding to a petition by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, as well as Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational feminist prayer group – has given the state until next Wednesday to deliver its answer.  

The petition was submitted against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, the government of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the foundation’s director who also serves as chief custodian of the Jewish holy site. Representatives of all the responding parties were scheduled to take part in the meeting with Mendelblit.

Next Tuesday marks a year since the government voted in a landmark decision to create a new prayer plaza for non-Orthodox Jews on the southern side of the Western Wall. It was the first time the Israeli government had granted official recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements at the Jewish holy site.

Rabbis at the march at the Western Wall being held back by an usher, November 3, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, however, Netanyahu has put off implementing the decision. The ultra-Orthodox deem Reform and Conservative Judaism illegitimate.

Ahead of Thursday afternoon’s meeting, the Religious Affairs Ministry sent Mendelblit a legal opinion, which argues that the High Court is not authorized to intervene in decisions that pertain to Jewish holy sites. The opinion was written by the ministry’s legal adviser Harel Goldberg. 

In his opinion, Goldberg wrote that non-Orthodox Jews do deserve a place to pray at the Western Wall, but he insisted they already have such a space. He was apparently referring to the temporary ramp set up a few years ago near the excavation site known as “Robinson’s Arch” on the southern side of the Western Wall. The government decision taken a year ago stipulated, however, that this temporary ramp would be replaced by a larger permanent plaza with greater visibility and accessibility. 

In their suit, the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall demanded 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.

As the state prepares its response, pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu to officially withdraw, or at least suspend, the government plan for a new egalitarian prayer plaza. According to sources familiar with the situation, the prime minister’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners have threatened to submit on Sunday a new bill that would outlaw the new egalitarian prayer space for the approval of the Ministerial Legislative Committee. It would also roll back any advances achieved in past years toward promoting the cause of pluralism at the Western Wall.

The new bill, endorsed by 16 members of the Knesset representing Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, would ban egalitarian prayer services anywhere near the Kotel and would prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah scroll at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines. 

In a separate petition to the High Court involving prayer rights at the Western Wall, the Center for Women’s Justice, an organization that advocates for women’s rights in Israel, has demanded that the state allow women to bring their own Torah scrolls to the women’s section. In response to this petition, the state was given until February 11 to explain why women cannot bring their own Torah scrolls to the holy site. The Center for Women’s Justice is representing in this suit a group of women who split off from Women of the Wall and founded their own organization, which they call Original Women of the Wall. 

The High Court ruled that the two petitions – along with a third submitted by an Orthodox organization opposed to the creation of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall – would all be heard together. No date has yet been set up for the hearing.

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