Hoping to Wrest Western Wall From ultra-Orthodox's Grip, Groups Petition High Court

Following a series of heated clashes over female dress and prayer at the ancient holy site, several groups band together to submit petition to Israel's highest judicial body.

A group of organizations advocating on behalf of Jewish pluralism and women’s rights are taking their fight to Israel's High Court, calling into question the legality and legitimacy of the authorities presiding over the Western Wall, it was announced Friday.

The group's petition to the High Court was submitted this week by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, together with Women of the Wall, Kolech-Religious Women's Forum, the Center For Women's Justice, the Yaacov Herzog Center, Hiddush and the Masorti-Conservative Movement.

The move follows several months of heated clashes between Women of the Wall, an organization that holds monthly prayer services at the Western Wall, and the authorities that govern and enforce religious practices at the site. Last month, four women – including two British students on a gap-year program – were detained for questioning during the monthly morning service, held on the first day of each Jewish month, for wearing prayer shawls while praying. In previous months, women were arrested for reciting the “Sh'ma” prayer out loud.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to find a solution to the controversy over prayer restrictions at the Western Wall.

The petitioning organizations have asked the court to examine the lack of equal representation of non-Orthodox Jewish streams, as well as women, in the bodies and offices that determine policy at the holy site. They have also asked the court to look into the justification for the dual functions held Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who is both the rabbi in charge of holy sites, appointed by the Prime Minister's Office, and chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the organization responsible for religious policy at the holy site.

“These positions intersect and overlap in ways that create potential for conflict of interests or worse, the possibility of dictatorial rule over the Western Wall, a site which Jews and non-Jews flock to from all over the world, as a spiritual and historical journey and of course for prayer,” the organizations said in a press release.

The petition is meant to establish equal rights and representation for women in the holy sites, the organizations noted. "Dismantling the Western Wall Heritage Foundation is the first step to changing the make-up of the rabbinical assembly and rabbinic courts,” said Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC and chairwoman of Women of the Wall. “We need women to have full religious freedoms and be represented on all of these levels of Jewish authority in Israel."

Michal Fattal