A Monday hearing on a 2013 petition against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Prime Minister’s Office served as a forum for the High Court of Justice to scold the government for not upholding its deals, according to attorney Yizhar Hess, head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement.
Ostensibly, the 2013 petition was brought by several Liberal Jewish organizations in opposition to the lack of female or Liberal Jewish representation on the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s leadership board. The foundation, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government Companies Authority, administers the Western Wall, the plaza and the Western Wall Tunnels. Its leadership is strictly ultra-Orthodox.
In practice, said Hess, the three judges at Monday’s hearing — Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, and Justice Hanan Melcer — “bombarded the state’s attorney with questions regarding the Kotel [Western Wall] deal.”
On January 31, 2016, the state signed a historic comprehensive compromise which allows for a permanent pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in the area commonly called Robinson’s Arch, and also for the formation of a new management committee with representation from all streams of Judaism.
The deal was reached after three years of negotiations led by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then outgoing cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, who currently serves as Israel’s attorney general. The negotiations included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall activist group.
Last winter the compromise was broadly hailed in the international press as an unprecedented sign of religious pluralism in an Israel which still only officially recognizes Orthodoxy for life cycle purposes. However, the plan languished in the current coalition’s partisan politics and today is largely seen as a political nonstarter for the Netanyahu administration.
According to Hess, the judges asked the state’s attorneys why the government had not yet implemented the January decision. Hess — who said he couldn’t “remember such a blunt discussion in the Supreme Court” — reported that Justice Naor even went so far as to ask the state’s attorneys whether the government was waiting for the court to step in “to pull the government’s chestnuts out of the fire.”
The petitioners comprised a cooperation of organizations, including Israel’s Reform Movement; Kolech, an Orthodox women’s group; the Center for Women’s Justice; the Yaakov Herzog Center, a moderate Religious Zionist group; Hiddush and Israel Hofshit, both pro-religious freedom groups; Women of the Wall; and the Masorti movement.
According to Hess, they were asked by the judges to amend and resubmit their 2013 petition, “and to rewrite it in a way that would put the Kotel deal at the center for them to rule on it.”
For the judges to have a more complete and updated account of the issues surrounding the petition to open up the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to women and Liberal Jewry, the petitioners were asked to update their submission to include the facts relating to the Western Wall compromise.
The head of Israel’s Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told Israel Radio (Hebrew) that the court was in essence giving the government a “yellow card” — a warning used in soccer games to indicate that a player has been officially cautioned.
Chair of Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman attended the hearing wearing her prayer shawl. In a statement released by the organization, she said, “We are gratified that the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has accepted our long-held argument that the Western Wall cannot be held hostage by a minority sect.”
“They [the judges] actually used the term ‘for God’s sake’ to demand that the government implement its decision to have a pluralistic plaza right next to the traditional plaza where women, Reform and Conservative Jews can pray as is their custom,” said Hoffman.
For Hess, the court hearing raised mixed emotions.
“We went to negotiate with the Israeli government and we conducted a very serious negotiation and it was signed. We reached an agreement. Now, after you signed an agreement, you need to go to court to implement it?” said Hess.
Hess said, based on Monday’s court hearing, he is cautiously optimistic that the court will rule that the deal must be implemented.
“I would cautiously say I’m happy for the Kotel deal, but it’s a shonda [an embarrassment], a mistake, that the government cannot implement its decisions. It tells you something about the government of the State of Israel,” said Hess.