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Reform, Conservative Jews say Western Wall compromise effectively dead

A mixed-gender Jewish prayer service at the Robinson’s Arch compound, near the Western Wall’s main worship area, in July 2014. Credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90.
A mixed-gender Jewish prayer service at the Robinson’s Arch compound, near the Western Wall’s main worship area, in July 2014. Credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90.

By Yehuda Shlezinger/Israel Hayom/

In a move that may further ignite tensions between Israel and diaspora Jewry, the Reform and Conservative movements say they no longer agree with having an upgraded platform for egalitarian prayer just south of the Western Wall Plaza. They insist on getting a designated section in the main prayer area.

The groups have recently petitioned the court in the wake of the Israeli government’s June decision to suspend a compromise that would have greatly expanded the small platform they currently use and given them direct control over its administration.

In a 27-page brief expected to be filed with the High Court of Justice Monday, representatives of Reform and Conservative groups, as well as Women of the Wall, said they no longer support the compromise. Instead, they now ask the court to re-divide the main plaza and grant them a special section, as well as to give them representation at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the site.

The plaintiffs argued that they had agreed to a “painful compromise” with the Israeli government to originally drop their demand for a special prayer section for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall plaza “contingent on having the southern area [the platform currently used] be declared part of the overall site,” according to the court brief.

“But the government has decided to suspend the implementation of the compromise, essentially scrapping it altogether,” the brief states. “Having reneged on the compromise, the government cannot just pick and choose the elements it wants to keep and expect us to sit idly by as spectators.”

The groups argued that in the wake of the government’s decision to backtrack on the prayer compromise last June, “it is incumbent that we go back to the basic ideas of equality, and the government should now act accordingly by respecting the petitioners’ right to pray according to their customs in the holiest place for the Jewish people, the Western Wall.”

The petitioners further state that according to Israeli law, the Western Wall site does not extend to the southern area where the current platform exists, near Robinson’s Arch. They claim that Israelis do not consider Robinson’s Arch to be part of the site, “and thus the platform is physically detached from the official site… it is totally obscured by barriers that have increased in height since the compromise was incorporated into a cabinet resolution.”

In June, American Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements as well as other Jewish organizations reacted with outrage to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the construction of a new egalitarian prayer pavilion at the Western Wall. Yet a mixed-gender prayer facility called “Ezrat Yisrael,” situated in the Robinson’s Arch compound near the Western Wall’s main worship area, remains intact. The Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian section was founded in 2000 and was significantly upgraded in 2013 under the direction of Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

The Israeli cabinet approved plans for the creation of additional egalitarian prayer facilities in 2016, in an agreement brokered by Natan Sharansky, chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel. Prior to the cancellation of the 2016 plan this summer, new egalitarian prayer facilities would have been constructed in the Ezrat Yisrael section. Mixed-gender prayer in the existing Ezrat Yisrael space, however, has not been affected.

Earlier this month, the Chief Rabbinate filed a 166-page brief with the High Court of Justice arguing that the court had no jurisdiction over the Western Wall when it comes to worship practices there.

In its brief, the Chief Rabbinate said: “The petitioners have asked the court to redress grievances that are germane to freedom of worship and the rules for prayer, by having mixed-gender services and having women read aloud from the Torah and perform the priestly blessing. The authority to deal with such petitions and to provide such legal remedies is not within the court’s purview, but rather lies with the executive branch.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s argument cited a 1924 law, in place during the period of British rule, which stipulated that “no cause or matter in connection with the holy places or religious buildings or sites in Palestine or the rights or claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine shall be heard or determined by any court in Palestine.”

But the non-Orthodox groups dismissed this claim in the brief Monday, citing various court rulings showing that the courts do have the authority to rule on religious matters. The non-Orthodox group’s demand for representation in the Western Wall Heritage Foundation is particularly explosive, since this is what led the ultra-Orthodox parties to drop their support for the compromise in the first place, saying this was tantamount to official recognition of non-Orthodox streams.

The petitioners insisted this was a must in their brief: “We cannot accept a situation where the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which has extensive powers over how things are run at the site, gives an exclusive voice to ultra-Orthodox Judaism and denies any representation to other streams and to the Women of the Wall.”

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