Pluralist groups warn government over foot-dragging on Western Wall deal

Reform movement threatens to use ‘fist of the High Court’

An ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jew is restrained by a Border Policeman as he screams against a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis holding prayers at the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jew is restrained by a Border Policeman as he screams against a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis holding prayers at the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Reform and Masorti movements in Israel, together with other groups, including Orthodox ones, are reviving a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, as a warning shot against any effort to water down the plan to upgrade the pluralist section at the southern end of the Western Wall.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he asked his bureau chief to find solutions to the intense opposition to the deal expressed by the haredi coalition partners, who have threatened measures against the government unless it is revised.
Leaders of the non-Orthodox denominations in Israel and the US are concerned that this may constitute an attempt to dilute the plans for the pluralist prayer area and its management, and have warned that if the government backs away from the agreement, this would cause severe harm to relations between the state and Diaspora Jewry.
The petition in question was filed in 2013 by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel, along with Women of the Wall, the Masorti Movement, the Center For Women’s Justice, Hiddush, Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum, and the Yaacov Herzog Center, an Orthodox educational institute.
The petition requests that the court require the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, to include representatives of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements on its board of management.
In addition, it also requests that the court order the foundation to give fair representation to women on its board.
Currently, the board does not include any women or representatives of the non-Orthodox movements.
The petition also argues that the twin roles adopted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz – both the administrator of the Western Wall and the holy sites, and the chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – create a conflict of interests.
The petition was essentially frozen by the petitioning groups during the almost three years of negotiations between the government and the non-Orthodox denominations and Women of the Wall on good faith grounds.
But those groups are now worried that the government may be trying to back away from the deal that was approved in January to create a recognized prayer space for non-Orthodox prayer.
On March 23, IRAC informed the High Court that it would like a date to be set for a hearing on the petition.
IRAC director Anat Hoffman, who also serves as the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, said on Wednesday that this step is a reaction to the prime minister’s announcement that his bureau chief was being given 60 days to find solutions to the demands of haredi coalition partners, United Torah Judaism and Shas, to change the agreement.
“We are saying, ‘If you reject our hand held out in compromise and for a pragmatic solution, we will seek to utilize the fist of the High Court of Justice instead,’” Hoffman told The Jerusalem Post.
She noted that the Women of the Wall group, which led the struggle for pluralist prayer at the Western Wall, had made a big compromise in agreeing to an egalitarian prayer space away from the central Western Wall Plaza, and said that the government should not reject pragmatic solutions to such issues.
Hoffman pointed in particular to the recent ruling of the Supreme Court which ruled last month that local religious councils could no longer bar non-Orthodox denominations from using public mikvaot (ritual baths) for conversion ceremonies.
The non-Orthodox movements offered several compromise solutions during the six years in which the appeal was under deliberation by the court, all of which were rejected by the state.
“The ultra-Orthodox don’t mind causing a rift between Israel and Jewish world, but the State of Israel can’t afford to do this, it can’t allow extremists on the haredi street to dictate these issues.
“This is a great opportunity for the prime minister to bring shalom bayit [harmony] within the Jewish world, and he should take it,” Hoffman said.