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‘Women of the Wall’ Ruling in Limbo (Updated)

The Attorney General calls on “local custom” to prevail

Adam Chandler
May 06, 2013
(Women of the Wall)
(Women of the Wall)

Last week, a Jerusalem district court ruling seemingly granted the Women of the Wall and others equal protection for prayer at the Western Wall by deciding that the arrests of female worshipers last month wasn’t appropriate.

At the time, it seemed like a victory, but also a missed opportunity. The court ruling effectively defused all the buzz that a plan put forth by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky had garnered in recent weeks. The plan called for an egalitarian prayer section, which may not have been ideal for either Women of the Wall or the Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, but both had seemingly been open to the conversation.

In short, the court ruling obviated the immediate need for compromise when public attention surrounding the issue was at its zenith. Representatives of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which had said it could live with a proposed change, hardened its stance as did the Women of the Wall chief Anat Hoffman, who said the Sharansky plan wasn’t relevant anymore because of the court ruling.

As I wrote last week, the problem was that the court ruling wasn’t a permanent fix:

But the issue isn’t settled now. One scenario is that a higher court could overturn the district ruling that offers female worshipers protection. Another complicating factor could be next month’s Rosh Hodesh service that plans to incorporate women reading from the Torah at the Western Wall for the first time in a decade. These are rights that should be protected, but history has not shown that all of Jewish Jerusalem agrees with that.

Just minutes ago, the Women of the Wall posted the following on its Facebook page:

It is a shameful day for the Israeli judicial system.

Attorney General Weinstein released a statement today in which he rejects the 24.4.13 District Court decision supporting Women of the Wall’s right to freedom of religion at the Western Wall. In a meeting with Rabbi Rabinowitz, Chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennet, his Vice Minister, Rabbi Ben Dahan and the states attorney, it was decided that the Attorney General will not appeal the District Court decision to the Supreme Court, though he also does not state that he accepts the ruling. His solution: to return to the 1981 addition to the law of holy places, which forbids citizens to pray in ways that are “contrary to the local custom”. The term “local custom” has failed to be defined in the 22 years since passing the addendum to the law, thus the need for legal clarity. Minister Bennet has proposed that he would like to reexamine this addendum, and introduce amendments to the law.

Women of the Wall urge the Attorney General to act and lead in accordance to legal proceedings of the State of Israel. The most recent legal ruling, if it is not challenged in the Supreme Court, should set precedent for women’s right to pray freely, according to their belief, on the women’s side of the Western Wall.

The statement continued, explaining that the next test will be in a few days’ time when the Women of the Wall gather for their Rosh Hodesh service on May 10. Taken at its word, the attorney general’s statement is quite literally a return to square one.

Update: JTA’s Ben Sales, who is following the issue closely from Israel and does great work, dropped me a line this morning to say he believes the Women of the Wall statement jumped the gun a little bit. He wrote (emphasis his):

This morning, I called the AG’s spokesperson to clear it up. He told me that I was right: the AG’s decision not to appeal means that the AG accepts the court ruling.

Of course, Bennett’s amendments could change the law and make the court ruling obsolete. But those amendments don’t exist yet, so the court ruling stands.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.