Improving Western Wall egalitarian section important, Israel’s Supreme Court justices say

Members of the Reform movement and Hebrew Union College holding torah scrolls during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, Nov. 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

Members of the Reform movement and Hebrew Union College holding torah scrolls during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City, Nov. 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israel’s Supreme Court during a four-hour session on the issue of prayer rights for women at the Western Wall indicated that physical upgrades to the section set aside for egalitarian prayer is key to satisfying the government’s suspended agreement with the liberal Jewish groups.

The judges, sitting in an expanded seven-justice panel, criticized the state for not preventing violence and confrontations during the monthly prayer services of the Women of the Wall in the regular women’s section.

Attorneys for the government told the justices that the state would spend some $7 million US to expand and improve the egalitarian plaza at the southern end of the Western Wall. The justices called on the state to move forward quickly with this part of the plan.

In June, the Cabinet suspended the deal passed in 2016 as a result of negotiations between the Reform and Conservative movements, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government. The suspension came after the government’s haredi Orthodox coalition partners pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scrap the agreement.  The plan also would have included a common entrance to the Western Wall plaza for all three sections and a public board to oversee the egalitarian prayer space and would include representatives of the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall.

The justices questioned whether the parts of the agreement that do not have to do with the physical structure of the egalitarian section were essential to providing the women with a place to pray in the style that they wanted.

“Does lack of a joint entrance change your rights?” Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut reportedly asked. Meanwhile, Justice Noam Sohlberg reportedly asked: “What has to be done to satisfy you? For the Western Wall rabbi to personally present you with a Torah scroll?”

Justice Yitzhak Amit reportedly asked why the section had to be designated as state-sponsored, the Jerusalem Post reported. “You don’t need the legislature to tell you it’s the Western Wall, it is the Western Wall. Everything we’re talking about is symbolic. Even if it’s not recognized in law, it is the Western Wall,” Amit reportedly said.

The court watched video clips of the violence against the women who pray monthly, sometimes with a Torah scroll, in the women’s section and against their supporters. The justices called on the state to do more to prevent the attacks.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said in a statement that the “actions of the government over the past two years show that it obviously intends to keep the existing egalitarian platform completely separate from the Kotel, without using the appropriate budgets and without representation for the groups using the egalitarian platform in the governance of the site.

He added: “It is our belief and hope that when the Court sees the partial and unsuitable plans of the government, it will decide that its conduct discriminates against millions of Jews in Israel and throughout the world. We will continue to operate both in the legal and public spheres in order to achieve the desired reality where every Jew and every Jewish community can pray according to their traditions at the Kotel in a respectful and egalitarian manner.”

Women of the Wall chairperson Anat Hoffman said in a statement: “Today’s hearing deepened and amplified the understanding that the original Kotel Agreement solution, which came out of discussion and compromise, is the only fair solution to all. The solutions offered today would all be submission to an extreme ultra-Orthodox minority which took over the most valuable national resource that belongs to Am Yisrael and all Jews around the world.”

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