A lenient ruling by a Jerusalem judge on the arrests of five members of the Women of the Wall group will be tested in an appeal to a higher court Wednesday.
On April 11, after police arrested five women at the Western Wall and charged them with disrupting public order, Judge Sharon Lari-Bavli ordered them all released immediately and chastised authorities for the arrests. Her decision is the subject of the new appeal to the Jerusalem District Court by the state prosecutor, which will be heard Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.
At the earlier hearing, after listening to the sides and viewing a video provided by police, the judge wrote in her decision, “I found that there was no basis for the arrest of the defendants.”
Instead, she wrote, other worshipers who disrupted their prayers were to blame: During the incident, “the Women of the Wall were not the ones behind the provocation.”
The decision caught authorities by surprise. Police say they are upholding a Supreme Court ruling from 2003 according to which women are not allowed to wear prayers shawls or read from the Torah at the site, because by angering some Orthodox worshipers their actions constitute a disruption of order. To accommodate the women and others, authorities have set aside a special area for pluralistic prayer at Robinson’s Arch, opposite a different section of the wall nearby.
The District Court will either uphold the lower court’s ruling, which would call into question the way police have handled the women’s monthly prayers, or reverse it and back the current policy.
Shmuel Rabinovitch, the state-appointed rabbi in charge of the prayer area at the wall, said he did not expect practice at the site to be altered by the courts.
“I don’t believe there will be a change, because the Supreme Court decision is clear,” he said.
The Women of the Wall, however, see the April 11 decision as important.
“The fact that the judge saw in the facts, including the police films, nothing that could be interpreted as a disturbance of public order or an offense against law was a significant achievement,” said Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the group’s founders.
The women’s fight to be allowed to pray as they wish at the Western Wall is not an issue of broad public interest in Israel, where pluralistic Judaism has only a meager presence, and thus no significant political support. Other problems of religion and state are considered to be of far greater importance — like the monopoly of an Orthodox rabbinic bureaucracy on marriage and burial, and the sweeping draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men.
But the issue has become widely discussed in Jewish communities abroad, and that interest and criticism has led to a new compromise proposal from Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
The proposal, effectively an embellishing of the current pluralistic prayer arrangement at Robinson’s Arch, has met with acceptance from Rabinovitch, the rabbi in charge of the wall. Some of the Women of the Wall have said they support it, but others say it does not satisfy their wish to be accepted as part of Jewish practice at the site and not shunted to the side.
“We want to be together in dignity and respect amid the homecoming of the Jewish people. We’re not looking for a separate place for ourselves,” Haberman said. “Our observances are part of Judaism, and we belong there.”