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Court orders state to explain U-turn on pluralistic Western Wall plaza

Justices level harsh criticism at government for ‘making a fuss’ and freezing a deal to create official pavilion for non-Orthodox prayer

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during mixed men and women's prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements hold torah scrolls during mixed men and women's prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on May 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice ordered the state Thursday to explain why it nixed a cabinet-approved plan to create an area for pluralistic worship at the Western Wall.

In the hearing, the justices leveled harsh criticism at the government for backtracking on a landmark deal that would guarantee non-Orthodox Jews free access to the Jerusalem holy site, saying any changes needed to made via government mechanisms.

“You conducted negotiations, you reached an agreement for an outline — but then during the legal proceedings, you made a fuss and said ‘it’s being frozen,'” Chief Justice Miriam Naor told state attorneys.

“You must explain why you have backtracked on the approved agreement,” Justice Hanan Meltzer added.

During the hearing, the state attorneys tried to argue that the 2015 cabinet agreement to create an area for pluralistic worship was not legally binding.

“We sought to reach an outline that would be acceptable to all sides, but this is a very sensitive issue,” a state attorney said.

In response, Naor agreed that the issue was delicate, and said the efforts put in to reach a compromise were commendable.

“But then all of the sudden you froze it,” she said. “There is legal process, it’s not a matter of doing whatever you want whenever you want.”

But Naor went on to say the decision regarding the day-to-day management of the Western Wall would ultimately not be made by the court.

The hearing came in response to a petition filed to court by a coalition of non-Orthodox and egalitarian religious groups.

In June, the government suspended a plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, following calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap it. The plan would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving representatives of all major streams of Judaism.

For many non-Orthodox Jews, the lack of implementation has come to symbolize a lack of freedom of religion in Israel, and increasingly, the divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry in general.

The decision to cancel the deal was lambasted by the opposition and representatives of Diaspora Jewry as well as some coalition members.

Currently, a prayer space at the Western Wall south of the main plaza and down several flights of stairs hosts pluralistic prayer. The deal would have seen construction work to raise the space up to the same level as the rest of the main plaza, and would have given control of the site to all religious streams under the state’s imprimatur.

 

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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