Supreme Court Ruling Summary
On December 1, 1988, a group of women gathered together in the Women’s Section of the Western Wall, united by a sole purpose: to conduct a prayer service for women according to Jewish law. They sang together, wore prayer shawls and read from a Torah scroll. But the sincerity of their prayers were met with insults and threats, and on later occasions, with extreme violence. Thus was born “the Women of the Wall” and a fourteen year-long court battle to recognize their right to pray together at the holiest site for the Jewish people.
Chief Officer of the Prime Minister’s Office vs. Hoffman
Government was created in order to govern, thus it is called “government.” It is the government’s legal duty to find an appropriate means to allow the Women of the Wall to pray and according to their practice and with sincerity at the Western Wall.
Judge Cheshin, in his court ruling in Chief Officer of the Prime Minister’s Office vs. Hoffman.
The story of the Women of the Wall began on the morning of December 1, 1988, when a group of around 70 women gathered at the Western Wall to convene a women’s prayer group in accordance with Jewish law. They stood together, singing aloud and some wrapped in prayer shawls. Their request was simple: to pray together at the Western Wall, wrapped in prayer shawls and reading aloud from a Torah scroll. Their prayer service progressed peacefully, until they began reading from the Torah scroll. At that moment, a woman observing them began screaming. Ultra-orthodox men, standing on chairs in the men’s section in order to catch a glimpse at the women began cursing at them.
From that day forward, violent opposition from fellow worshippers prevented the Women of the Wall from conducting their prayer service at the Western Wall. On the Fast of Esther 1989, the group suffered from such extreme violence that the police had to use tear gas to disperse rioters. The following day, the Women of the Wall petitioned the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice (HCJ 257/89, Hoffman vs. Western Wall Commissioner) and thus began a 14 year-long legal battle.
In their first petition, the Women of the Wall asked the Court to determine if and to what extent were they legally entitled to pray at the Western Wall according to their custom. During the course of litigation, Regulation 2(a) of the Regulations on Preservation of Jewish Holy Sites-1981 was amended to prohibit performance of a religious ceremony at “holy sites” (a term that includes in its definition the entire Western Wall plaza) that was “not in accordance with the ‘custom of the place’” and “that harms the sensitivities of fellow worshippers towards that holy site.”
In its first ruling on the matter, the Court was divided on three key issues: the question of the petitioners’ right to actualize their constitutional right to freedom of worship at the Western Wall site; the meaning of “custom of the place” as referenced in Regulation 2(a); and the ultimate ruling in the petition. While a majority ruled to dismiss the petition, a majority also ruled that the petitioners’ had the legal right to pray according to their practice at the Western Wall. The President of the Court called for a dismissal of the petition despite his support of the group’s legal right to access the Western Wall to worship, believing that prior to judicial intervention, the parties should attempt to reach a mutually agreed-upon arrangement that would uphold the petitioners’ “free access to the Western Wall and minimize harming the sensitivities of fellow worshippers.”
In light of the court ruling, the state established a committee with the mandate to recommend a viable solution that would “establish free access to the Western Wall and freedom of worship at the Western Wall, while minimizing the harm to fellow worshippers’ sensitivities.” When the committee failed to meet its state-imposed deadlines, the Women of the Wall filed a second petition with the Supreme Court (HCJ 3358/95, Hoffman vs. Chief Officer of the Prime Minister’s Office). The petitioners’ requested, inter alia, that if the state were to decide not to allow them to pray at the Western Wall according to their practice, then the Court would set out its own arrangement to realize the petitioner’s right of access to and worship according to their practice at the Western Wall. It should be noted that the petitioners’ request was simple: permission to worship at the Western Wall for one hour, once a month, on the first of the month; excluding the first of the month of Tishrei.
After several committees examined the issue, the deciding committee, the Ne’eman Committee, concluded that prayer according to the petitioners’ practice would not be possible at the Western Wall. In support of its conclusion, the committee relied in part on the police’s position that prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall would cause “severe unrest and disorder, based on past experience and in light of estimations based on the present situation.” The committee concluded that Robinson’s Arch was the most realistic alternative given the needs of the petitioners. The committee noted that the site was a direct extension of the Western Wall, adjacent to the Wall and “kissing” it, thereby giving the petitioners’ direct access and physical contact with the Wall. The petitioners’ dismissed this and all other alternatives proposed and argued vehemently to fulfill their right of worship in the women’s section of the Western Wall according to their religious practice.
On May 22, 2000, the Court accepted the petition. The Court held that the previous ruling already recognized the petitioners’ right to worship according to their practice in the Western Wall plaza and that the various committees acted in violation of the earlier ruling. The Court instructed the state to establish appropriate arrangements and criteria, by which the petitioners’ would be able to realize their right of access to and prayer at the Western Wall.
Despite their victory, the Women of the Wall were faced with yet another obstacle standing between them and their right to pray at the Western Wall: two weeks after the ruling, the state petitioned the Court to reexamine it (DGNTZ 4128/00, Chief Officer of the Prime Minister’s Office vs. Hoffman). The state argued that in the second court ruling (which they were appealing), the Court wrongly ordered them to establish new arrangements for worship, given that the arrangements that they had already proposed complied fully with what was required of them. The state claimed that the rights of the Women of the Wall had not been decided conclusively in the first court ruling.
On June 4, 2003, the Court issued a ruling, and the legal battle regarding the Women of the Wall came to a close. The majority ruled that, despite the state’s claims to the contrary, the Women of the Wall maintained a legal right to pray at the Western Wall. Nevertheless, such right was not without boundaries, and the Court was obligated to minimize the harm felt by other worshippers by the form of prayer of the Women of the Wall and to prevent violent incidents between the two warring camps. In keeping with its opinion, the Court ruled that prayer at Robinson’s Arch would allow the Women of the Wall to pray according to their practice “next to the Western Wall,” so long as the site was revamped within 12 months to accommodate the women’s worship. Up until the court’s ruling, the physical site of Robinson’s Arch (an archaeological site) could not accommodate prayer in an appropriate fashion. Thus, the Court held that if the state did not make the required changes to the site within 12 months, the state would be obligated to find a new arrangement to realize the right of the Women of the Wall to worship at the Western Wall according to their practice.
According to the minority opinion, the proposal of Robinson’s Arch emptied the earlier ruling of all its meaning and therefore, the state’s petition should be dismissed. Judge Motza argued:
The state was obligated to devise arrangements that would allow the Women of the Wall to worship at the Western Wall, not next to the Western Wall. As is known, the Western Wall plaza covers a wide space. … In obligating the state to create parameters to allow the Women of the Wall to realize their right to worship – for 11 hours total in the course of a year – the Court had already taken into account the sensitivities of other worshippers. The Court had found the proper balance between the need to allow the Women of the Wall to pray according to their practice and the need to moderate as much as possible the harm that their prayer would cause to the sensitivities of fellow worshippers. Intervention by the Court in the form of relief granted to the Women of the Wall in the second court ruling would violate the above balance.
As mentioned above, the Supreme Court ordered the state to revamp the physical site of Robinson’s Arch within 12 months of its ruling (until 6.4.2004) so that the Women of the Wall could exercise their right of worship at the Western Wall. The state, however, made no effort to comply with the court’s ruling, and a year passed without any changes to the site.
The Women of the Wall had suffered enough and refused to face yet another humiliation. In the summer of 2004, they tried to recreate that first prayer service in 1988: they returned to the women’s section of the Western Wall, wrapped in prayer shawls and reading aloud from their Torah scroll. Surprisingly, their prayers were not met with violence or any other interruption. For one hour, fourteen years of silence was interrupted as the Women of the Wall realized their constitutional right to pray without conditions or limitations .
Faced with the “rebellion” of the Women of the Wall, the state expedited renovations to the Robinson’s Arch site, and the Women of the Wall conduct their monthly prayer service at the site until this day. But the struggle continues – until full recognition of the right of the Women of the Wall to pray according to their practice in the women’s section of the Western Wall, the holiest site for the entire Jewish people.