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High Court Asks Israeli Government to Implement Western Wall Reform

FILE - An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man speaks to a woman across a fence separating men and women at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, April 10, 2013.

The Israeli Supreme Court has demanded an explanation from the government for its decision not to implement an agreement that would have expanded the section of a revered Jewish shrine where women can pray alongside men.

The deal between the government and several non-Orthodox groups, reached in January 2016, would have allowed mixed-gender worship at a part of the Western Wall. But the government suspended the deal six months later, after being pressured by its Orthodox coalition partners.

The Israeli Supreme Court on Thursday demanded answers. "One can't help but ask 'What exactly happened here?'" Chief Justice Miriam Naor said. "There was an agreement, they were working on it. But then the government came and said there isn't one. It raises some questions."

In accordance with strict ultra-Orthodox tradition, there are currently separate prayer sections for women and men at the wall. Women are also barred from leading the prayers or carrying the Torah.

The reform movement and other activists have been pushing for years to brings changes to the rules governing the wall.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent only about 10 percent of the Israeli population, but have wielded great power over the social fabric of the country.

In June, a Jerusalem court ruled the Israeli state airline El-Al can no longer ask female passengers to move seats to accommodate Orthodox men.