Women of the Wall reject proposed new prayer site

"Robinson's Arch is a tourist site, not a prayer area, separated from the rest of the Jewish people, whereas our women consider themselves an integral part of the Jewish people," lawyer Frances Raday said after recently receiving the committee's recommendation. Women of the Wall is an international organization advocating women's rights for group prayer at the Western Wall.

The Ne'eman proposal was made in response to Women of the Wall's petition to the High Court of Justice seeking a ruling on their right to pray as a group at Judaism's holiest site. The committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman agreed to take on the issue at the government's request.

Chaia Beckerman, a Women of the Wall member, said the group had made a "minimal but basic request to pray with clal Yisrael [the Jewish community] at the Wall according to our custom. We suggested a few compromises that would make that possible. But a compromise that isn't physically at the Wall is not a compromise, but rather a surrender."

Betsy Cohen Kallus, also of the group, said, Ne'eman "was pressuring us throughout the committee meetings to accept Robinson's Arch, and we made it clear to him that it was not acceptable. First of all, because it's too far from the Western Wall and the area where we as Jewish women want to be able to pray, and second of all, it is not an area which is prepared for prayer, but rather a pit in the ground. It's a completely inaccessible location physically; there's no way to physically get in there.

"We're prepared to go back to court and we hope we'll be able to argue successfully."

In its report, the committee said it had examined the advantages and disadvantages of five different sites. Those rejected by the committee included the women's section of the Western Wall, the southeastern corner of the Wall, the parking lot at the Western Wall complex, and the area there known as the flag plaza.

The committee reported that Robinson's Arch not only "will allow the worshippers direct access and contact with the Wall," but is "the most practical solution for the needs and demands of the Women of the Wall."

However, Raday called the decision "contrary to the previous recommendation of the High Court, which said that they should be allowed to implement their right to pray there, minimizing the injury to the sensitivities of the other worshippers. They used the word 'minimizing.' What this committee has done is use the word 'preventing' injury to the sensibilities of other worshippers."

Raday said her group had reduced their request to 11 hours of prayer a year — one hour every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon), excluding Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti Movement in Israel and a committee member, explained that he had only gone along with the recommendation after hearing from Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki that police would not be able to prevent violence if the women were permitted to pray in the women's section at the Wall or at the flag plaza.

"I don't rule out Robinson's Arch. I think it's a reasonable proposal," Bandel said, "but it would have been preferable had the other two proposals been accepted: either allowing the women to pray at the Western Wall for 11 hours a year, or having them pray at the parking lot within the Western Wall plaza."

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center, the only committee member not to support the Robinson's Arch proposal, said: "The fact that I supported the compromise proposed by the women does not mean that I did not support the Robinson's Arch option; I certainly saw the virtue in it.

"But I said that, in light of the fact that the Women of the Wall were limiting their request to one hour a month, and even the fact that over the years the venom has significantly decreased from the time the Women of the Wall started their services…I felt that the compromise they offered…was one that was reasonable, and that they deserved my support and that I should not turn my back on their just and compelling plea."