Legal Battle Over Egalitarian Prayer at Western Wall to Enter Pivotal Stage

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Reform Jews at the Western Wall
File photo of American Reform Rabbi Zachary Shapiro, center left, and other American and Israeli Reform rabbis at the southern end of the Western Wall, Feb. 25, 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Israels highest court will devote a critical hearing on Sunday to the controversy surrounding prayer at Jerusalems Western Wall, one of Judaisms holiest sites.

The court session is expected to be the final hearing before the Supreme Court delivers its ruling on a petition filed by the non-Orthodox movements of Judaism and Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group. The petitioners are challenging the governments retreat on its promise to provide them with a permanent and expanded plaza for egalitarian prayer at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, where the Reform and Conservative movements would gain official recognition.

Alternatively, they have demanded that the existing gender-segregated plaza at the northern expanse of the Western Wall be redivided into three equal parts to make room for them.

This will be the second hearing in the case. The first hearing was held in late August before a three-justice panel headed by then-Supreme Court President Miriam Naor. Next weeks hearing will be held before an expanded seven-justice panel headed by her successor, Esther Hayut.

In January 2016, the government approved the plan to create a new plaza at the Western Wall for mixed-gender prayer services. The plan was never implemented, however, because of fierce opposition of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government. The non-Orthodox movements along with Women of the Wall submitted their petition to the High Court of Justice in October 2016, before the government voted the following June to suspend the agreement, sparking a crisis of unprecedented scope with Diaspora Jewry. American Jewish leaders, particularly those representing progressive movements and organizations, expressed outrage at the governments decision to walk back on the Western Wall plan. Many described it as an act of betrayal.

At the last High Court hearing, Naor asked whether the government would be willing to reconsider its decision to suspend the agreement and whether lawyers representing the state believed the court had the authority to force the governments hand in the matter. The state attorneys office replied that the government would not reconsider and that in the lawyers' view, the court could not impose a solution. In addition to Hayut, the case will be heard next week by Justices Hanan Melcer, Yoram Danziger, Neal Hendel, Uzi Vogelman, Isaac Amit and Noam Sohlberg.

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