In a written response to the High Court, the attorney general ruled that the southern section of the Western Wall should be designated as a “holy site” for pluralistic prayer, and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate should not have any control over the area.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s Monday statement came in response to several ongoing High Court petitions, coming from both sides of the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Among the petitioners are the major non-Orthodox Jewish movements, the Women of the Wall (and its splinter group, which calls itself the Original Women of the Wall), and the Women for the Wall, who are against women’s Torah reading at the Western Wall.
In Monday’s response, lawyers for the government acknowledged that the southern section of the wall was a holy site, and therefore law enforcement agencies had a duty to ensure that there are no disruptions to prayer there and no unruly behavior by protesters.
The attorney general’s legal response followed an episode from this past November, when Reform movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs was buffeted by ultra-Orthodox protesters and area guards when as he attempted to bring a Torah scroll through the Western Wall plaza’s main entrance.
Mandelblit also wrote that the government must create a body that would be responsible for the area, but which would not include representatives of the Orthodox rabbinate or the rabbi of the Western Wall.
According to the statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the categorization of Robinson’s Arch as a “holy site.” The statement records that Netanyahu has informed the attorney general that he intends to request that the Ministry of Religious Affairs give up jurisdiction of the site to a high-level government official to be named by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Mandelblit’s letter confirmed that the form of worship customarily engaged in at the southern section of the wall included pluralistic prayer and women’s prayer services, and that this rite had to be safeguarded. Any attempt to disrupt such prayer at the site would be punishable according to the law regulating other holy sites.
A pluralistic prayer site since 2000
The pluralistic pavilion is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park in an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current “mainstream” Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The Israeli Conservative movement has used the Robinson’s Arch area for pluralistic prayer since 2000, holding twice-weekly Torah reading services and keeping prayer shawls and prayer books there.
On Monday, the attorney general’s statement called the area a “holy site,” referring to The 1967 Law of the Conservation of Holy Places which states, among other things: “The holy places will be protected against desecration and all other harm, and against all things that may prevent free access of all religions to the holy places, and their feelings for these sites.”
Since the custom of prayer in this section of the wall is not in keeping with the Orthodox Jewish tradition, the attorney general’s office wrote, the government must set up a separate body to oversee the site, stressing that there was no reason for any delay in appointing such a body.
Such a body would have been created with the implementation of a now-frozen 2016 government decision, colloquially called the “Kotel Plan.”
On January 31, 2016, the government passed a decision which mandated an enlarged permanent prayer platform, which would be easily accessible 24 hours a day and visible from the Western Wall plaza.
In a second, key element to the long-negotiated compromise, there was to be a joint committee overseeing the southern site, made up of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox female representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman, and six government officials. The “mainstream” Orthodox pavilion on the northern part of the Western Wall would continued to be administered by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
But, caving to ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the government froze the plan on June 25, 2017.
In Monday’s statement, the attorney general does not press for the implementation of the full non-Orthodox supervisory committee, but does affirm that the Robinson’s Arch section should not be under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Israeli chief rabbinate or the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
In the hands of the court
Masorti movement head Dr. Yizhar Hess said that now it was up to the court to finalize the matter. “The adviser paved the way for the High Court of Justice to anchor the matter with nails,” he said.
“The right to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is a constitutional right, and the attempts to prevent, limit, humiliate or repress it are incompatible with the right to freedom of religion,” Hess added.
Susan Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice welcomed the decision, but stressed that women should also be permitted to hold services at the longstanding northern section of the Western Wall too.
“We applaud all state recognition of alternative denominations and expressions of Jewishness. However, we insist that the state cannot deny the right of our clients to pray at the original kotel if that is their wont, with tallit, tefillin, and torah scrolls,” she wrote. “The state must allow equal access to all to pray in any equal manner at all junctures of the national holy site.”
Work began last month on improving and enlarging the permanent prayer area at the southern wall.
Until this new construction, Robinson’s Arch pavilion had contained two main areas of prayer platforms, which are built over and among the archaeological remains. The larger section, which from below recalls rickety bleachers, does not actually touch the Western Wall but rather sits approximately 10 meters from it. The second, noncontiguous section, is broken up into several landings before it reaches the Western Wall on a modest-sized platform.
In the new construction, the existent temporary prayer platform would double in size to allow for up to 1,200 worshipers.