Non-Orthodox Groups Turn to High Court for Stake in Western Wall

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Ultra-Orthodox protesters seek to disrupt egalitarian prayers held by Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters seek to disrupt egalitarian prayers held by Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Having lost all hope that the Israeli government will follow through with its plan to build them a special section at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer services, the non-Orthodox movements are taking their battle for equal standing at the Jewish holy site to the High Court.

On Monday, the High Court will hear the petition, which demands that the government establish a new administrative authority for the Western Wall that includes representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements as well as women. Alternatively, they are requesting that the existing administrative authority, the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, appoint Reform and Conservative representatives, as well as women, to its board. 

The non-Orthodox movements are being represented in the petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. Also signed on are the multi-denominational prayer group Women of the Wall, the Orthodox feminist group Kolech, and the religious freedom advocacy organizations Hiddush and Be Free Israel.

The petitioners have requested that the High Court give the state a deadline to respond to the following question: Why are the non-Orthodox movements denied representation in administering the Western Wall?

The petition had originally been submitted three years ago, but IRAC had agreed to suspend proceedings after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his support for a plan to build a new platform at the southern expanse of the Western Wall where men and women would be able to pray together. After several years of negotiations, an agreement was finally reached on all the details of the plan and was approved in the cabinet in January. Since then, however, the ultra-Orthodox parties that are members of the governing coalition have put pressure on Netanyahu to back out of it. The prime minister tried, without success, to reach a compromise agreeable to both the Haredi parties and the non-Orthodox movements.

In light of the resulting stalemate, the non-Orthodox movements notified the court a few months ago that they were interested in renewing proceedings in their dormant petition. Despite protests from the state attorney’s office, which is representing the government and the Western Wall Heritage foundation in the case, the High Court notified the parties that the petition would be heard on Monday morning by a tribunal headed by Supreme Court President Miriam Naor.

“Since we first submitted our petition, the situation at the Western Wall has gone from bad to worse,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, the IRAC attorney handling the case. “The Kotel custodian acts as if it’s his own private property, and it is important that the court clarify that a site that carries such national and spiritual significance for Jews in Israel and abroad must be administered in a professional manner, with adequate representation to all the streams of Judaism and to women.”

Because the government has not followed through with its agreement to create a new prayer platform for them on the southern side of the Western Wall, the non-Orthodox movements have also been threatening to petition the High Court for a reallocation of the existing gender-separated prayer spaces on the northern side. They have said they will ask that one-third of the area be designated for egalitarian services. When asked when the petition would be filed, Erez-Likhovski said: “We are working on it.”

Commenting on the petition, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said it was time to return the Jewish holy site “to the values of religious pluralism, justice and tolerance.”