The chief rabbi of the Western Wall failed to show up at a special hearing called at the Knesset on Tuesday to address the lack of transparency in decisions that affect the Jewish holy site, particularly those concerning the status of women.
The session had been organized specifically around the schedule of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who serves as both chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and chief custodian of the site, in order to ensure he would attend.
According to MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union), chairwoman of the relatively new Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information, Rabinowitz only notified the panel late Monday night that he would not show up. She said that he did not return any phone calls from her or other Knesset members involved in organizing the session.
“This is a blatant act of disrespect for this committee and completely unacceptable behavior,” said Shaffir. “The Western Wall rabbi receives a very nice salary from the state, and he must be accountable. If he can’t report to us, he shouldn’t be taking money from the state.”
Michael Malkieli, a Knesset member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who serves on the special committee, informed the participants that he had advised Rabinowitz not to attend, out of concern that the rabbi would be subjected to what he described as a “kangaroo court.” Malkieli contended that rabbis of Rabinowitz’s stature are not accountable to the Knesset.
His remarks drew fire from opposition Knesset members on the panel, who threatened to introduce a new law that would penalize civil servants like Rabinowitz who refuse to report to them.
The session had been called to address the following questions: Who decided to deny access at the Western Wall to female journalists covering the recent visit of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence? Who authorized a recent Ferrari sports car display there? Who ordered a new and much higher separation barrier to be erected between the existing men’s and women’s prayer sections at the Wall? Who decided that women are to be banned from reading from Torah scrolls at the site? And why are women, unlike men, prohibited from using loudspeakers during ceremonies there?
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Sent to respond to the committee on behalf of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation was Mordechai Eliav, the organization’s managing director. The questions directed at him sparked a fierce outburst from MK Eliezer Moses, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Before storming out of the room, Moses turned to Shaffir and the other women questioning Eliav and cried out: “What do you have to do with the Kotel? Reform (Jews), go bar-mitzvah your dogs.”
MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the oppositionist Yesh Atid party, who initiated the panel's hearing, said she planned to introduce legislation on behalf of her party that would create a new public body that would administer the Western Wall “in the name of and for the entire Jewish people.”
Invoking a biblical phrase, she said her sense of the decision-making process at the Kotel was that “there is no law and no one standing in judgment.”
Describing the Western Wall rabbi as a “sheriff,” Yael Cohen-Paran, an MK from the oppositionist Zionist Union, wondered who empowered Rabinowitz with the authority to decide what constituted “local custom” at the holy site. “Where does he derive this huge power from?” she asked.
Rabinowitz has cited “local custom” in the past as grounds for denying women the right to read from the Torah at the Wall.
Eliav, for his part, described the Western Wall Heritage Foundation as “the most transparent institution that exists.” He acknowledged, however, that his organization does not publish minutes of its decision-making meetings. During the Knesset session, it emerged that citizens interested in obtaining copies of the protocols are required to pay exorbitant fees.
Asked if Rabinowitz actually possessed the authority to determine “local custom” at the Western Wall, Eliav admitted that he did not know. Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, wanted to clarify that point.
“He does not have the authority,” she asserted. “He simply assumed it.”