AG recognizes ‘constitutional rights’ of non-Orthodox Jews at Western Wall

Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit has said that progressive Jewish prayer is a protected right at the prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall.

March 5, 2018 21:36
2 minute read.
Scuffle at Western Wall

Security guards restrain Reform rabbis from entering the Western Wall complex on November 16th.. (photo credit: ISRAEL MOVEMENT FOR REFORM AND PROGRESSIVE JUDAISM)

In a dramatic submission to the High Court of Justice, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said that progressive Jewish prayer is a protected right at the prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall, and that an administrator should be appointed for it who is not connected to the Chief Rabbinate.

The attorney-general’s position reflects what may be a revolutionary approach to this prayer area by the state, since it determines it to be part of the Western Wall holy site.

It states that the accepted custom at the site is non-Orthodox prayer, argues that non-Orthodox prayer rights there must be protected, and recommends that a suitable government official run the site outside of the auspices of the rabbinate.

This position is likely to rile the Haredi political parties, which have fought vehemently to oppose all state recognition of progressive Jewish denominations and prayer rights at the Western Wall.

Mandelblit’s position, made in a response to petitions against the government and submitted to the court on Monday, says that the site for pluralist and egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch, does fall within the boundaries of the general holy site.

He also argued that the “Law for Protecting the Holy Sites” was also incumbent upon the Robinson’s Arch area, including provisions to guarantee freedom of worship and access, and that the government itself in response to petitions against it had designated this area as a site for non-Orthodox prayer and for the Women of the Wall prayer group.

Mandelblit said explicitly that the regulations of the “Law for Protecting the Holy Sites” could not be implemented at Robinson’s Arch by someone opposed to non-Orthodox prayer since, he pointed out, the “customs of the site” are for egalitarian prayer.

“Therefore... a government agent who does not represent the chief rabbinate should be appointed as an ‘administrator’ of the southern prayer plaza,” wrote Mandelblit, adding that failing to appoint someone to this position would be unreasonable in the extreme, since there is no one to guarantee freedom of worship at this site.

The attorney-general therefore recommended that an “appropriate” government official be appointed to the task of southern plaza administrator.

Director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess welcomed the attorney-general’s position and said that it underlined contradictions in the status of the site at present.

“The bottom line, as summarized by the attorney-general, is clear, sharp and clarifies how absurd the current situation is. The Ezrat Yisrael [pluralist prayer section] is a holy site.

Pluralist and egalitarian prayer in Ezrat Yisrael is a constitutional, protected right. Implementation of these rights is impossible if the administrator is the rabbi of the Western Wall, and so his authority should be limited to only the northern plaza of the Western Wall and the state must appoint another administrator to Ezrat Yisrael,” said Hess.

“Attempts to ignore, limit, disgrace, or reject this constitutional right are not commensurate with the right to freedom of religion,” he continued.

“This is constitutional recognition of the right to freedom of religion at the Western Wall,” Hess added.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform Movement in Israel, also welcomed the attorney-general’s response, and said that the High Court justices should now demand that a “separate but equal” arrangement for the Robinson’s Arch site be implemented that affords it the same status and budget as the central Western Wall prayer plaza.

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