Government tells High Court it still plans to improve Western Wall egalitarian plaza

Responding to multiple court petitions, state says it is working to implement long-stalled, six-year-old cabinet decision, angering both liberal and conservative groups

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A view of the egalitarian plaza, often referred to as 'Robinson's Arch,' at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)
A view of the egalitarian plaza, often referred to as 'Robinson's Arch,' at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on December 30, 2021. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

The government on Thursday told the High Court of Justice that it was still working to fix and improve the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, in response to a number of petitions to the court by feminist and religious activist groups.

In an extended update to the court, the government said it still planned to implement a 2017 decision to “build and formalize” the southern section of the Western Wall, also known as Ezrat Yisrael or Robinson’s Arch, which is used by non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism for mixed-gender prayers.

The update was issued in response to seven petitions to the High Court regarding the Western Wall — some from liberal organizations and some from conservative groups — that have been filed over the past decade, in which the government has been successfully arguing that it needs more time to resolve the issues due to the complexities.

The Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the Women of the Wall feminist group, decried the government’s exceedingly slow progress in fulfilling its 2017 pledge and its overall decision to leave the Western Wall in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox.

The hardline Orthodox Liba Center also denounced the government from the other side of the debate, criticizing it for continuing the plans for the egalitarian section and for recognizing the authority of the High Court in the first place.

“It’s infuriating that the same Knesset members who only yesterday were screaming about how they have to fight for the Western Wall all the way are suddenly not helping in the effort to say what’s obvious to the High Court — that it doesn’t have the authority to rule on what happens at the Western Wall. And they are continuing to advance the Western Wall deal,” said the head of the Liba Center, Oren Henig.

People gather to hear a reading of the Book of Lamentations at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on August 6, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The egalitarian section of the Western Wall currently exists in something of a legal gray zone, technically under the authority of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi of the Western Wall but permitted to operate as an egalitarian prayer space by prime ministerial order.

A plan known as the Western Wall compromise, which was spearheaded by the Jewish Agency, sought to resolve this issue and to the numerous petitions filed with the High Court regarding the holy site. On one side, the compromise would have granted official status to the egalitarian section and expanded the plaza, but at the same time, it would have affirmed the gender segregation at the main plaza.

The compromise was approved by the cabinet in 2016, but the following year when it was due to be implemented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved to ultra-Orthodox pressure and issued the decision to put the compromise on hold indefinitely but also to improve the infrastructure at the site.

Nearly six years later, the government — through state attorneys Hadas Eran and Sharon Rotshenker — said it was still working to upgrade the plaza and was waiting to receive planning permission for further construction at the site.

The government also addressed the issue of a number of stones that fell into the egalitarian section in 2018, which have blocked direct access to the Western Wall since then.

Eran and Rotshenker said the government was working to remove the stones but that the process was being held up by the Jerusalem municipality.

“From Ezrat Yisrael, there has been no access to the stones of the Western Wall for five years, and unlike the massive budget that the gender-segregated plaza receives, the government does not at all fund the egalitarian section,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski of the Israel Religious Action Center, speaking on behalf of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall.

“The gender-segregated plaza is being run as the private yard of the Western Wall chief rabbi who bullies anyone who prays in a way he doesn’t like,” she said.

Last week, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party proposed legislation that would have imposed severe restrictions on prayer at the Western Wall, criminalizing the activities of the Women of the Wall, banning visitors from wearing attire deemed immodest, and potentially ending the egalitarian section of the Western Wall entirely.

The bill received fierce condemnations, including from within the coalition. Netanyahu called for it to be indefinitely shelved and Shas later backtracked on the bill as well.

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