Recently, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi in charge of the holy sites in Israel, stated in a statement to media that “the organization of the Women of the Wall and the entire Reform movement are the only Jewish stream who received from the State of Israel its own private area for prayers at the Western Wall”.
Rabinowitz offers the fallacy above in attempt to justify the exclusion of women in a public place, a holy site, which he is responsible for and enforces through the Police. It is crucial that this false claim receive the truthful response it deserves:
In 1989, Women of the Wall petitioned the Supreme Court for the right to pray freely on the women’s side of the Kotel as a minyan of women, with Torah and tallit. Meanwhile, that same year, a regulation was promulgated by the Ministry of Religion and the Ministry of Justice to “prohibit any religious ceremony at a holy place that is not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshipers at the place.” The penalty for violating this regulation is 6 months in jail and/or a fine. This regulation is still in effect.
The Supreme Court verdict to the first petition was given in 1994, and in it the three judges wrote three different evaluations, demonstrating the complexity of the issue. The verdict was decided by two separate matters: on the one hand, the majority (Judges Levin and Shemgar) thought that the Women of the Wall had gained the right to pray by their custom next to the Western Wall and that their freedom of religion must be protected. However, by a majority of Shemgar and Alon, the petition was dismissed with the claim that court is not the proper place to decide such a matter. It was decided that a government committee must give a solution that will allow the freedom of access to the Western Wall on one hand, and take the feelings of the ultra-Orthodox community into account on the other hand.
After the verdict, three committees were established. None of these committees included women. After the Women of the Wall protested this issue and involved organizations from abroad, one Member of Knesset, Sarah Doron, was permitted to sit in on one of the committees as an observer without a right to vote or speak. The main committee ruled against allowing the women’s prayer at the Western Wall plaza.
Women of the Wall opposed the conclusions of the committee and expressed their frustration in another petition, in which they repeated their demand to allow them a certain time to pray at the Western Wall: one hour on the first of every Jewish month, except for Tishrei. All together, the group of Jewish women asked for eleven hours a year to pray freely at the Kotel.
In 2000, in response to this second petition, Justices Eliyahu Matza, Tova Strasberg-Cohen and Dorit Beinish, instructed the government unanimously to “set the appropriate arrangements and conditions, for the Women of the Wall to fulfill their right to pray according to their custom within the Western Wall, while not overly hurting the feelings of other praying people in the area, and making sure the proper security is given”. All this was meant to occur within six months.
The final discussion on the issue took place in 2003 and in a majority of five against four judges, the High Court of Justice cancelled its previous verdict and decided to endorse the states solution to accept “Robinson’s Arch” as a suitable alternative to the Western Wall. Since the verdict of 2003, the Women of the Wall pray Shacharit at the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh, and then go to Robinson’s Arch to read from the Torah.
Women of the Wall did not request the space in Robinson’s Arch or the money that was invested in it. Robinson’s Arch is an archaeological and tourist site, charges a fee for entrance and is open only limitedly though out the week. Robinson’s Arch is a space designated for mixed prayer (male and female), whereas Women of the Wall is a women’s only prayer group that includes Orthodox women, who do not pray with men. Robinson’ Arch does not have Torah scrolls or siddurim to pray with. Robinson’s Arch is not suitable for prayer for Women of the Wall.
Women of the Wall maintain that it is the right of any woman to pray with the rest of Am Yisrael at the Western Wall, proper.