State Savaged in Court for Ignoring Agreement to Open Western Wall to Non-Orthodox

'Enough is enough,' top court says, blasting government for ignoring plan for the Western Wall because of religious pressure.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Ultra-Orthodox protesters argue with Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters argue with Reform and Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall on June 16, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The Israeli government took a beating in court Monday for its failure to implement a decision from the beginning of the year to make arrangements for non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

"Enough is enough," said High Court of Justice President Miriam Naor, referring to the government's inaction on the matter. She also took the occasion to criticize the prosecution for coming to the defense of the government's foot-dragging on various occasions over the last eight months.

Men and women pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall, separated by a gender partition in this illustrative photo in Sept. 2008. Credit: Tess Scheflan

Noar's intervention deflected the court from the main issue under debate on Monday - a motion filed by Women of the Wall, Kolech (a feminist religious forum) and the Conservative and Reform movements against the site's custodian, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, arguing that it does not represent all sects of Judaism, and excludes women.

Naor, however, went straight to the heart of the dispute - the state's failure to implement a decision to create a space, unsupervised by the rabbinate, next to the main praying area of the Wall (at Robinson's Arch).

"Do you expect us to extract the chestnuts from the fire for you?" Naor asked the prosecutors, as representatives of the state.

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein also blasted the state for failing to take action over praying areas at the Western Wall, despite the conclusions of a professional committee headed by former government secretary Avichai Mendelblit that had met for three years – and all because of "an article in a Haredi newspaper" that was critical of the decision.

Naor said that Monday's motion "is not the real problem." The latter, she continued, is "what happens at the Western Wall, where things have been dragged out without end and without limit.

"My impression is that we are expected to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. But that is the responsibility of the government. It is an issue that needs to be escalated to the appropriate level, because we're talking about the Western Wall. Things aren't moving."

Rubinstein, in turn, pressed state representative attorney Nachi Ben-Or for answers. "What is actually happening?" he asked. "In January, the government made a decision. Afterwards, there were a few disagreements, followed by a meeting at the prime minister's office at the end of June.

"As regards these regulations, is there any chance in the world that the Religious Services minister will sign them or do we have to do something to get someone else to sign them?"

At the end of the hearing, he asked Ben-Or to "pass on the essence of what was said here to the appropriate people, so this issue can be brought to a dignified conclusion."

"Those who don't want pluralism will go to the northern plaza and those who do to the southern plaza," he said. "We are a Jewish nation."

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall and head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, was in court during Monday's hearing. Rabinowitz has refused to accept some of the committee's recommendations. Also present was Anat Hoffman, a representative of Women of the Wall; who came to court wearing a prayer shawl.

The judges gave the petitioners three weeks to amend their motion so it includes developments in recent years.

"The court gave the state a yellow card," remarked Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement. "During the hearing, the supreme court president asked the representative of the state why they expect the court to remove their chest nuts from the fire. We join the question and ask it directly of the prime minister, who in the last year enabled the ultra-orthodox politicians to take the issue of the Western Wall hostage."

The court told the state loud and clear what should have been patently obvious, said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti movement: that an agreed-on plan won't just disappear because somebody changed his mind. "The government has to move itself, the court said so explicitly. It has to do something, and fast."

"There are judges in Jerusalem," said Hoffman. "This morning the supreme court sent a very broad hint to the prime minister, to start implementing the plan on the south side of the Western Wall."

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