High Court questions renovation delays in Western Wall egalitarian sector

The High Court of Justice has ordered the state to explain what steps it has taken to upgrade the egalitarian section at the southern end of the Western Wall and to change the administration of the site. The state must respond by April 4, 2021.Further, it asked for an update on appointing someone who is outside the authority of the Chief Rabbinate as administrator for the egalitarian section. Thursday’s decision follows a Tuesday hearing in the High Court on several petitions filed by the Women of the Wall (WOW) prayer-rights group together with non-Orthodox and religious-freedom organizations demanding fair or improved access to the Western Wall for progressive prayer.In Thursday’s decision, the court said it was “saddened by the significant delays in dealing with making the southern [prayer] section of the Western Wall fitting for prayer.”The court cited both “instructions” issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to carry out such renovations in June 2017 after the 2016 “Western Wall agreement” with WOW and the non-Orthodox groups was indefinitely frozen and a resolution by a special ministerial committee committing the government to such upgrades.In 2017, and again in 2018, the government promised to upgrade the egalitarian prayer section to make it a more-fitting site for prayer. Those renovations have never been implemented, The Jerusalem Post reported.Elements in the hard-line, conservative wing of the religious-Zionist sector have lobbied heavily against the proposed renovations, creating bureaucratic and other obstacles at municipal and planning levels.Pressure was placed on Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion not to carry out the renovation, and he transferred authority for the decision to the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, where it has been stuck since December 2018.

The proposed renovation is relatively modest and consists mainly of extending the current prayer platform to reach the stones of the Western Wall along a single level. Currently, a small, lower platform that was closed due to damage from a fallen stone is the only place where the Western Wall is accessible to be touched in the egalitarian section. Many Jews have a custom to touch the stones of the Western Wall in prayer.During Tuesday’s hearing, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut reprimanded the government’s legal representatives for ongoing foot-dragging in carrying out the agreed-upon instructions.
The renovation issue is significant. The petitions filed by WOW and the progressive Jewish groups have asked the High Court to issue an order to the government to either implement the Western Wall agreement of 2016 or to add an egalitarian prayer section at the central Western Wall Plaza.Perhaps the present state of the egalitarian section, with the lack of basic infrastructure and sufficient access to the stones of the Western Wall, might make the court more inclined to accept one of these demands. Such an outcome is ostensibly the reason Netanyahu sought to advance the renovation plan in the first place – to avoid those more controversial options.In response to the High Court’s decision, WOW said it constituted a further reprimand to the state for its foot-dragging both on renovating the egalitarian prayer section and in appointing an appropriate administrator for the site.“The court exposed in the [Tuesday] hearing the state’s failures in everything concerning the protection of the rights of worshipers who are not haredi [ultra-Orthodox] who want to pray at the Western Wall and determined that the delays and different and weird excuses are disparaging,” WOW said.

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