In a groundbreaking ruling, the Jerusalem District Court upheld an earlier decision of the magistrate’s court that women who wear prayer shawls (“tallitot” in Hebrew) at the Western Wall Plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested.

The issue of equal prayer rights at the site has risen to the forefront of public debate in recent months due to the frequent arrests of women participating in the prayer services that the Women of the Wall activist group holds there.

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman said the ruling “liberated the Western Wall for all the Jewish people.”

“This is a critically important story for reclaiming Judaism, redefining our values and reclaiming the Wall,” she said. “Women of the Wall have really achieved something for Israeli society and the entire Jewish world.”

On April 11, five women who had donned tallitot during the group’s monthly prayer service were arrested and brought to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Judge Sharon Larry-Bavly ruled at the time that there was no cause for arresting the women, and that the Women of the Wall’s prayer services did not create a public disturbance.

The Regulations for theProtection of Holy Places to the Jews, dating from 1981, forbid performing religious ceremonies that are “not according to local custom” or that “may hurt the feelings of the worshipers” at the site, where local custom is interpreted to mean Orthodox practice.

These regulations and their interpretation, which a Supreme Court ruling upheld in 2003 and a Justice Ministry directive reiterated in 2005, have been the legal basis for the regular arrests of women who perform Jewish customs at the Western Wall that are usually practiced only by men in Orthodox Judaism.

On Thursday, however, Judge Moshe Sobell, who was presiding over an appeal hearing that the Israel Police had filed against the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court decision, upheld Larry-Bavly’s earlier ruling that there was no basis for arresting women over wearing tallitot or performing rites not in accordance with Orthodox custom.

Sobell ruled that the definition of “local custom” did not automatically mean Orthodox practice. He based this decision on the written opinions of several Supreme Court justices from previous cases, particularly that of justice Shlomo Levin, who wrote in a 1994 ruling on the issue that “the expression ‘local custom’ does not need to be interpreted specifically as according to Jewish law or the current situation.”

Levin wrote that it was the nature of customs to change with the times, and within that context “[permission] should be given to the expression of a pluralistic and tolerant approach to the opinions and customs of others.”

In reference to the charges of causing a public disturbance and disturbing the peace, Sobell ruled that even if the women had behaved in a way that was disruptive, they were in no way suspected of violent or verbal behavior that would either disturb the peace or endanger the public.

Attorney Einat Horowitz, who represented Women of the Wall in court, said following the decision that “the most important aspect of this ruling is the fact that Women of the Wall’s prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall does not violate the ‘local custom’ and therefore does not imply a reasonable doubt of violation of the Law of Holy Places.”

She added that “the court has rejected any reasonable cause for a policy of repeated detainment and arrests of Women of the Wall by police.”

Following the publication of the district court’s decision, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, who has been working on formulating a solution to the problem in recent months, called on the attorney-general to issue a clear and updated directive for accepted practice at the Western Wall.

“In light of the new ruling, the Israel Police must refrain from making arrests,” Lavie said in a press statement, adding that “disorder in the legal arena will cause a firestorm at this sensitive place... confusion will increase the controversy and conflict.”

A spokesman for the Jerusalem District Police said that police would “adhere to the ruling of the court.”

Women of the Wall, with the help of sympathetic Knesset members, has been exploring avenues to change the 1981 regulations – including either legislation or new directives from the Religious Services Ministry – in order to prevent the ongoing arrests of women at the site. These steps may well be unnecessary following Thursday’s ruling.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has strongly advocated for the preservation of Orthodox custom at the site, said he would turn to the Attorney- General’s Office “to examine the consequences of the ruling and its implications, especially in relation to the decision of the Supreme Court.”

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, whom the prime minister had tasked with finding a solution to the issue, said in response that the ruling strengthened the need for a sustainable and agreed solution “that will allow every Jew to feel at home at the Western Wall.”

Sharansky’s plan will allow for the construction of an additional section of the Western Wall Plaza at the southern end of the Wall, “equal in size and height to the northern prayer area,” for egalitarian prayer. That area would be accessible as part of a unified Western Wall complex with a single entrance.

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