Women Win Landmark Court Decision on Western Wall Prayer
Images of police detaining women for public worship at the Western Wall could be a thing of the past, after an important ruling today by the Jerusalem District Court.
A judge considered the main grounds that police cite for detaining members of Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that gathers monthly for prayers a the Western Wall. He concluded that there was no justification for the detention of five women earlier this month, and that the police’s request for restraining orders to keep them away from the Wall can’t be granted.
Significantly, the judge ruled that in the Law of Holy Places, which compels Western Wall visitors to pray and hold religious celebrations according to the “local custom,” this phrase doesn’t necessarily mean Orthodox custom.
David Barhoum, attorney for the group, said: “There is no doubt that this decision is crying out and calling to the authorities to change their approach to the prayers of Women of the Wall.” Another member of its legal team, Einat Horovitz, commented: “The court has rejected any reasonable cause for a policy of repeated detainment and arrests of Women of the Wall by police.”
Natan Sharansky, who forged a plan to eventually create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, offered cautious praise for the ruling.
“The decision of the District Court and the reactions to it only strengthen the need for a sustainable, agreed solution, which will allow every Jew to feel at home at the Western Wall, as the basis for any resolution,” Sharansky said. “An agreed solution reached through dialogue, understanding and mutual compromise will ensure that the Western Wall remains a symbol of unity for the entire Jewish people”
Sharansky added: “Now that we have an agreed outline, I call on all the sides to move forward and implement it.”
“Today Women of the Wall liberated the Western Wall for all Jewish people. We did it for the eight-year-old girl who can now dream of having her Bat Mitzvah at the Wall, and for the grandmother who cannot climb on a chair in order to see her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. We did it for the great diversity of Jews in the world, all of whom deserve to pray according to their belief and custom at the Western Wall,” Anat Hoffman, the group’s chair, said in a statement.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites of Israel, responded to the ruling in a statement issued Thursday. “The Western Wall is our last remaining unifying place. It easy to set it ablaze with the fires of dispute. It is much harder to find the middle road which would allow all continue to feel they belong and are welcome at the Western Wall. I implore the authorities and the silent majority that cares about the Western Wall to prevent fanatics from all sides from turning the Western Wall plaza into an area of conflict between brethren.”
A lower-level court had already dismissed this month’s detentions as unacceptable, but state prosecution challenged the decision. Today’s ruling, the outcome of an appeal hearing, is more detailed and carries more weight.
It evaluated at the two oft-cited justifications for detaining women at the Wall — the Law of Holy Places and a Supreme Court decision. Handed down in 2003 the decision includes a recommendation that Women of the Wall can pray at Robinson’s Arch away from the main Western Wall plaza. But this, said the judge, was a recommendation and not a criminalization of women’s communal prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall.
This ruling could become the green light for their Western Wall activities that the Women of the Wall have long hoped for. However, the Haredi establishment won’t take this lying down.
Under rabbis’ pressure, the state prosecution can be expected to escalate its appeal through the Israeli court system. The Haredi rabbi who is in charge of the Western Wall has grudgingly accepted a plan to create a gender-egalitarian prayer section there, but will fight this latest development hard.