Judge asks Tel Aviv’s mayor to drop ‘time wasting’ libel lawsuit over public prayer

Ron Huldai is suing Transportation Minister Regev for saying he prevented people from putting on tefillin in the street

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Transportation Minister Miri Regev speaks to the media after a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Tel Aviv, January 31, 2024 (Flash90)
Transportation Minister Miri Regev speaks to the media after a court hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Tel Aviv, January 31, 2024 (Flash90)

A magistrate’s court judge on Wednesday asked Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Transportation Minister Miri Regev to end their legal battle over Jewish worship in public in the city.

Judge Dorit Kovarsky proposed at a hearing that the two politicians issue a joint statement clarifying their positions instead of going ahead with the case initiated by Huldai, who is seeking NIS 500,000 ($137,000) from Regev for alleged libel. Kovarsky called the trial on the lawsuit that Huldai filed in 2020 “a waste of time” in part because Regev has parliamentary immunity that shields her from any relevant penalties.

The lawsuit addressed Regev’s claims that Huldai was preventing people from putting on tefillin, a religious item that Jewish men place on their arm and forehead in prayer, in public. Huldai’s lawsuit said that Regev had defamed him with the claim.

Kovarsky gave Huldai, represented by lawyer Tal Shapira, until Monday to reply to her proposal. If Huldai rejects it, she will accept closing arguments and rule, she said.

The lawsuit is one of many controversies touching on religion and state that had rocked Israeli society for years before such issues were sidelined by the outbreak of war with Hamas on October 7.

Regev, a high-profile right-wing politician, on Tuesday appealed to Huldai to drop the lawsuit, citing the need to “maintain unity.” Huldai ignored the plea and sent Shapira to the opening of the trial, in which Regev appeared in person, representing herself.

File: Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai speaks during a protest march as part of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Tel Aviv, November 24, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In court, Regev said that her claims were in connection with the decision to remove several stands from the public domain that observant Orthodox Jews, typically from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, set up to encourage others to put on tefillin. Tel Aviv has a regulation that forbids any stands from being set up within 100 yards of an educational facility and another regulation that allows the mayor to prohibit the erection of any stand.

Shapira said that “there was never any prohibition against a private person to put on tefillin anywhere he wants in Tel Aviv.”

Regev disputed that, arguing that having a stand is integral to allowing people to put on tefillin, a claim that is not backed by Jewish scripture or practice.

“If you’d ever put on tefillin, you would know that according to halacha the tefillin cannot be left hanging, you need a surface. The stand is the surface. Limiting a stand is limiting tefillin,” Regev said, adding that the lawsuit was meant to “silence” her.

Earlier this month, Education Minister Yoav Kisch criticized the principal of a high school in Tel Aviv who was filmed trying to chase away an Orthodox Jew who offered to put on tefillin for a student. “It is inappropriate and un-educational,” Kisch said of the conduct of Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium principal Ze’ev Dagani.

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