Court outlaws shofar blowing at Kotel Hakatan

Right-wing activists blast decision as ‘shameful’ and symptomatic of ‘ghetto mentality.’

Jew blows shofar at Kotel 390 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Jew blows shofar at Kotel 390
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
In a landmark decision, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled last week that police can forbid Jewish worshipers from blowing the shofar at the Kotel Hakatan, a small part of the Western Wall that is considered the closest point to the inner sanctuary of the Temple Mount.
The case stemmed from an incident on Rosh Hashana in 2006, when a group of worshipers blew the shofar on the second day of the holiday, which also fell during Ramadan that year. Police repeatedly asked the man, a 19-year-old yeshiva student named Eliyahu Kleiman, to stop blowing the shofar. When he refused, police confiscated his shofar and detained him for questioning at a nearby station. He was released after threeand- a-half hours under the condition he not visit the area for 15 days.
Kleiman sued the police for damages resulting from wrongful arrest and theft of the shofar. After a number of postponements that stretched for years, the case was finally heard last week. Judge Shirley Renner found in favor of the police, ruling that they have the right to stop any religious action they believe will lead to violence or danger to the public.
“The competing interests – freedom of religion and observance on the one hand and public security on the other – mean that different situations may be considered if the action is announced beforehand,” Renner wrote in the decision. Still, she found that the police had made a “legitimate” decision by confiscating the shofar.
Mickey Levy, the former Jerusalem chief of police from 2000 to 2004, welcomed the court’s decision, which he said was the first official decision delineating shofar use at the Kotel Hakatan.
“There is no reason to blow shofar there, there’s plenty of room at the Western Wall to blow the shofar,” he said. “When the police say every once in a while, that there’s something in the air or they think something could happen, it’s their obligation to guard these areas,” he said.
Levy stressed that the primary responsibility of the police is protecting the delicate balance between different groups in the Old City. This can include prohibiting entry to specific holy sites or preventing rituals such as Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount in the interest of maintaining public order. “If the police don’t guard the calm, it could explode very quickly,” he said.
But the decision drew the ire of right-wing activists, including those at Koteleinu, a group that advocates for the Kotel Hakatan.
“The fact that an Israeli citizen has to sue… over the violation of freedom of prayer and humiliation at a holy site… it’s a very shameful thing,” said Bracha Slae, a Jerusalem resident who has been active with Koteleinu for seven years.
Slae said that the police do a good job of keeping the area safe and orderly, but she worried about their unchecked authority. She has previously been denied entry to the area due to security reasons.
Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization devoted to the revival of Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem, had harsher words for the court decision. He said it reminded him of “the dark days” under the British government, when Jews were forbidden to blow the shofar at the Western Wall.
“I think in some ways we have a little bit still of the ghetto mentality that is dictating our decisions at a national level,” he said. “To think [that at] the holiest place in the world, a Jew is not allowed to pray... The logic is that aggression, violence and threats of violence work, and that’s something that shouldn’t take place.”
Attorney Daniel Robbins, who is representing Kleiman pro bono, said he planned on appealing the decision.
“The court says Jews’ right to pray at the Western Wall is limited,” he said, echoing the belief that the Kotel Hakatan is a continuous part of the Western Wall. “The court decision says more about the court [and] has nothing to do with the spirituality of the site.”
The Kotel Hakatan is a nondescript, crumbling stone wall in a 20 square meter courtyard just a few steps away from the Iron Gate entrance to the Temple Mount. The courtyard is surrounded on two sides by apartments inhabited by Muslim families. It is considered to be the holiest place in Judaism outside of the Temple Mount, as it is the part of the Western Wall that is closest to the Holy of Holies.
Previously, Koteleinu activists had complained that the area was filled with trash and used as a latrine by area residents. Due to the sensitive location of the site, authorities are loathe to alter any aspect of the Kotel Hakatan for fear of disturbing the delicate status quo. Moves in 1999 and 2005 to install a hand-washing station in the courtyard were met with violence and riots.
Small groups can bring Torahs and gather for prayer events in coordination with police and the Western Wall Heritage Fund. However, no ritual objects can be installed permanently at the site, such as chairs, a cabinet to hold prayer books or a Torah ark.
Security forces at the Iron Gate always have the right to deny entrance to Jews wishing to pray at the Kotel Hakatan, especially during sensitive events and holidays or times when there is a threat of violence.