Women who seek to pray at Western Wall dealt setback

JERUSALEM — After 14 years, the effort by a women's group to hold organized prayer services at the Western Wall has suffered a setback.

In a 5-4 ruling Sunday, Israel's Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision that had recognized the right of the group known as Women of the Wall to pray at the holy site in the manner they choose.

The court also gave the Israeli government 12 months to prepare an alternate site for Women of the Wall to hold its monthly prayer service, in which participants read from the Torah and wear prayer shawls.

But the court ruled that if preparations at the designated location, an archeological site at the southern end of the Western Wall known as Robinson's Arch, are not completed within a year, the group must be allowed to pray at the Wall.

The justices were ruling on an appeal filed by the state to a May 2000 decision recognizing the group's right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall, and instructing the government to take the appropriate arrangements to make this possible.

Sunday's ruling was "very disappointing," said Batya Cohen-Kallus, chairwoman of Women of the Wall. "We had every reason to hope that the court would back and affirm" the May 2000 decision.

Instead, Cohen-Kallus said, "we've backtracked."

Since the late 1980s, Women of the Wall has been fighting for the right to hold its prayer services in the manner it chooses at the Western Wall, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

Group members say such practices are becoming increasingly accepted in Orthodox circles, but some past prayer services drew angry — and sometimes violent — outbursts from fervently religious worshipers.

The Israeli government has argued that the group's service at the wall could threaten public order.

Women of the Wall consistently has rejected proposals of alternate prayer sites.

"Robinson's Arch is nothing more than an archeological site," and does not have the sanctity or holiness of the Western Wall, Cohen-Kallus said.

Attorney Frances Raday, who represented Women of the Wall, said the court did not backtrack on its recognition of the women's right to pray at the wall. But in its decision, she said, the court chose to protect the sensitivities of other worshipers over the right of the women to pray at the wall.

National Religious Party legislator Shaul Yahalom welcomed the court ruling.

"The Supreme Court saw the need to preserve the rights of most of the worshipers in the world to not be hurt," he said on Israel Radio.

Just as the court ruling three years ago in favor of Women of the Wall prompted fervently Orthodox legislators to initiate a bill that would impose jail sentences for women who read from the Torah, wear prayer shawls or blow the shofar at the Western Wall, this decision appeared to be only the most recent part of a long battle.

"The one good thing that has come out of this is that we're finished with the Supreme Court for the time being," Cohen-Kallus said. "We hope to turn this into a public debate."

She drew encouragement from the new political landscape, including the popularity in the last election of the secular-rights Shinui Party, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's handling of the fervently religious parties.

"We intend to use all the government and non-governmental support we have,'' she said.