Liberal Jews petition High Court over Western Wall deal

Women’s group and non-Orthodox movements demand government implement agreement for mixed prayer section

Two members of Women of the Wall lead the Rosh Hodesh prayer service (Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Two members of Women of the Wall lead the Rosh Hodesh prayer service (Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Representatives from the Conservative and Reform movements and the Women of the Wall organization presented a petition to the High Court on Thursday, demanding that the government uphold a deal to create a mixed-gender prayer area adjacent to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City or redivide the existing prayer plaza to allow for a mixed section for men and women.

They will also petition the court to alter the composition of the board of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to include non-Orthodox members and representatives of women’s organizations, according to a draft of the document seen by the Haaretz daily.

The groups warned the prime minister in July that they were taking the matter to the High Court. In a letter at the time, they said that they would continue to hold mixed prayer services in the previously designated area at the Western Wall, despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit upholding the objections of Western Wall Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. They wrote that they also expected to receive police protection from any protesters and hecklers.

On January 31, 2016, the state signed a comprehensive compromise allowing for a permanent pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in the area commonly called Robinson’s Arch, and also for the formation of a new management committee with representation from all streams of Judaism.

The deal was reached after three years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Mandelblit, who was cabinet secretary at the time. The negotiations included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall activist group.

However, the deal has not yet been implemented due to objections from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government. “To date they remain unwilling to agree to even a part of this carefully negotiated compromise, which affirms that there is a place for every Jew at the Kotel,” Hebrew for the Western Wall, the letter said.

The groups pointed out that the cabinet voted to approve the agreement and that the ultra-Orthodox parties are obligated to uphold the government’s decision.

Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson's Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on Thursday, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)
Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson’s Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on Thursday, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)

In September, a petition from 2013 against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Prime Minister’s Office served as a forum for the High Court of Justice to scold the government for not upholding its deals, according to attorney Yizhar Hess, head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) movement.

According to Hess, the judges asked the state’s attorneys why the government had not yet implemented the January decision. Hess — who said he couldn’t “remember such a blunt discussion in the Supreme Court” before — reported that one justice went so far as to ask the state’s attorneys whether the government was waiting for the court to step in “to pull the government’s chestnuts out of the fire.”

Last winter the compromise was broadly hailed in the international press as an unprecedented sign of religious pluralism in an Israel which still only officially recognizes Orthodoxy for life cycle purposes. However, the plan languished in the current coalition’s partisan politics and today is largely seen as a political nonstarter for the Netanyahu administration.

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