Reform Movement Leader Threatens Court Action if Western Wall Prayer Space Deal Amended

Leaders of Reform and Conservative movements warn that ultra-Orthodox parties might ultimately find themselves with a worse deal forced upon them by the Supreme Court.

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneges on any terms of the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the Reform movement will petition the Supreme Court with demands for an even better deal for non-Orthodox Jews.

“When we go to the Supreme Court, what we will demand is not to implement the compromise approved by the government,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel. “Rather, we will demand that an egalitarian worship space be allocated to us inside the area of the already existing Kotel.” 

The compromise agreement, approved by the government in January, would create a new space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall where men and women could hold mixed prayer services, while retaining control of the existing gender-segregated area in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox authorities.

The chief rabbis and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties met Sunday with the prime minister and voiced their objections to the deal. The rabbis meeting was called off, however, at the last moment. Religious Services Minister David Azoulay has said he will not sign the regulations required to put the agreement into effect. 

The agreement had been hailed as historic because it provides official government recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at the Jewish holy site. Several Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox minister who voted against the deal are now demanding the government introduce legislation that would weaken the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

“What is happening now is no longer about the non-Orthodox movements,” Kariv told Haaretz. “It’s about who is setting the tone here in Jerusalem – Is it the Israeli government, or is it extreme minority groups inside the Haredi community?”

He warned that if the ultra-Orthodox pushed the prime minister too hard, they might ultimately find themselves with a worse deal forced upon them by the Supreme Court. As a case in point, he noted the cour'ts recent decision that forces the ultra-Orthodox establishment to allow Jews converted by the Conservative and Reform movements to immerse themselves in state-run mikvehs (ritual baths). 

“For six years, we brought various pragmatic proposals to the Religious Affairs Ministry on this issue of the mikvehs, but they refused to talk to us,” he said. “If what the Haredim want is a Supreme Court ruling that goes much beyond the agreement and compromise in this case as well, then let it be.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said that neither would he agree to any amendments to the government-approved deal. “We have already made huge compromises, and if the prime minister decides to back down now, that would set off a major crisis,” he warned.

At the same time, Hess said he was not convinced that petitioning the Supreme Court was the best strategy. 

Asked how the Conservative movement would respond were Netanyahu to renege on his commitment to create a new mixed-prayer space at the Western Wall, Hess said it would pray as it wished without requesting permission from the authorities. “We will go back to our original plan for holding egalitarian services twice a week, on Mondays and Thursday, at the upper plaza,” he said, referring to the area right above the existing gender-segregated spaces.  

“We will change the local custom there just as we did at the lower plaza next to the wall,” he said, citing the April 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling that allows women to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries while praying at the Western Wall. 

Hess expressed optimism, however, that Netanyahu would follow through with his commitment to implement the compromise deal. “I have full confidence in the prime minister that he will find a way to back up his commitment to ‘one Kotel for one people’ without changing one word in the agreement,” he said.