The Western Wall crisis: Its causes and its consequences

What are the results of Sunday’s decision to nix a planned egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, and what will happen in the future?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the firestorm of condemnations and recriminations that erupted after the indefinite suspension of the Western Wall agreement to formally recognize an egalitarian prayer section, it is easy to lose sight of the reality on the ground at the holy site today.
So what are the consequences of Sunday’s decision, and what will happen in the future?
The current situation
Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)
The renowned central Western Wall Plaza, with the men’s section and the women’s section, remains exactly as it was; prayer at the site will continue to be gender separate, although Orthodox customs are not defined in law as they would have been under the Western Wall agreement.
All Jews of every stripe and denomination will continue to be able to visit and pray at the site; but as was the case previously, they cannot conduct egalitarian prayer anywhere in the Western Wall complex.
In addition, the Women of the Wall prayer group will still be able to pray in the women’s section with prayer shawls and tefillin, but the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site along with the chief administrator, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, will continue to try to block their efforts to read from a Torah scroll there. More on that later.
The site known as Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Western Wall will continue to serve as a place for egalitarian prayer, but will not be recognized as a state holy site and will remain formally part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park. It will continue to be accessible only from outside the main Western Wall complex.
The Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism in Israel) will still run regular prayer services and religious celebrations at the site, and it is open to all comers for egalitarian prayer. It is, however, also open to everyone else, a fact exploited by hard-line National Religious elements and Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stage several Orthodox, gender-separate prayer services there, much to the chagrin of the Masorti and Reform movements.
What would the Western Wall resolution have done?
The resolution approved by the cabinet on January 31, 2016, would have had two major results.
The first would have been to formally recognize by law the egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch as a holy site designated for non-Orthodox prayer and the women-only prayer services of the Women of the Wall.
Second, it would have defined by law the central Western Wall Plaza as a place for Orthodox prayer only, and Women of the Wall would have been required to pray at the Robinson’s Arch site.
There were two critical clauses for the progressive Jewish movements and Women of the Wall, without which they would not agree to the compromise.
First, the egalitarian prayer plaza would be accessible from inside the central Western Wall complex, and the two sites would share one joint entrance.
The second clause was that the egalitarian area would be run by a special government committee, including representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall.
What happens now?
The cabinet decision approved on Sunday means that implementation of the original resolution is formally frozen, and a new vote in the cabinet would be needed to begin implementation.
In short, while the haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas are in the government, the deal won’t be implemented.
It is also worth bearing in mind that since 1981, the haredi parties have been absent only from four governments. Their outsized political clout is legendary, as the current crisis attests, and even when they were out of government during the last coalition, progress on religion and state issues was minimal because of their continual threats to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to anger them while they were out of office for fear they would ally with a left-wing leader in the next election.
The Prime Minister’s Office has, however, allocated funds to upgrade the infrastructure and renovate the current egalitarian prayer section at Robinson’s Arch, work that will include some of the physical upgrades stipulated in the original resolution.
The Reform and Conservative movements have rejected these efforts as unilateral steps that fall way short of the original plan and do not come near to meeting their requirements as originally agreed.
Netanyahu and the PMO have stated on several occasions since Sunday that they are aiming to restart negotiations with the progressive Jewish denominations and Women of the Wall for a new arrangement at the Western Wall.
But the leaders of these movements have almost entirely ruled this possibility out, arguing that the government now lacks the credibility to implement the deals it signs.
That just leaves the High Court of Justice
The only salvation at this point for the Reform and Masorti movements and Women of the Wall lies in the hands of the justices of the High Court of Justice.
These groups petitioned the court last year to issue an order to the government either to implement the resolution or add an egalitarian prayer section at the central Western Wall Plaza.
Their legal argument is based on the terms of the Law for the Protection of Holy Places, which states that members of the different faiths must have full access to their holy sites, and the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
They argue that by denying them access to pray in accordance with their own customs at a state-recognized holy site, the state is discriminating against them.
Many observers feel that it would be surprising for the High Court to take the radical step of allocating an egalitarian prayer section at the central Western Wall complex.
In addition, the upgrade to the Robinson’s Arch site is also being carried out specifically to ward off such an interventionist threat, since if the government can prove that the facilities at the current egalitarian area are adequate, the argument that progressive Jews lack access to the Western Wall for their prayer services could be neutralized.
Another petition might have more chance, however. That is the High Court petition by the Original Women of the Wall splinter group demanding the right to read from a Torah scroll at the women’s section of the main site.
The rights of women to pray with prayer shawls and tefillin in the women’s section were upheld by rulings of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court and the Jerusalem District Court in 2013. The Women of the Wall group believes that its petition to read from the Torah will obtain similar recognition from the High Court.
This would be a significant blow to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabinowitz and the haredi leadership, who since 2010 have all strongly resisted this demand.
Indeed, even if the High Court rules in favor of this petition, don’t put it past the haredi parties to legislate around this potential ruling as well.