The British government of Palestine wrote in 1930 that “on the 15th August, 1929, some hundreds of young Jews organised a demonstration at the Wailing Wall, in the course of which the Zionist flag was raised and the Zionist anthem sung. Incensed by this, the Muslims held a counter-demonstration at the same spot on the following day.” The Muslims then “tore up a Torah scroll and burned Jewish religious documents.”
In early May of this year, MK Rabbi Dov Lipman noted in a discussion in the Knesset that “it is very interesting, relating to the Kotel, that in our history we see old photos of women and men praying together. It isn’t an Orthodox synagogue, it is a place we all value and does not have the Halacha of a synagogue.”
The Western Wall has been in the news lately due to conflict, primarily between the group Women of the Wall and haredi groups over methods of prayer in the women’s section. Is it an Orthodox synagogue? Is it a national symbol? Have men and women historically prayed together? Who has a right to decide? Both groups have often resorted to historical claims regarding their position.
As the tensions rise there is talk of building a new section for prayer south of the Western Wall. At the same time, voices like Lipman’s have been raised claiming that the Western Wall is not a synagogue. Similarly, there are calls to “liberate” the Western Wall from “Orthodox domination.” This conflict sometimes seems to pit Reform Jews and left-wing MKs against the Orthodox. In support of the position of the anti- Orthodox position, many people point out that in photos or illustrations of the Western Wall in the Ottoman or British periods, women and men are standing near each other. Elliot Horowitz wrote in Tablet magazine that “in calling for the desegregation of the Kotel, the modern movement is actually reviving 19th century traditions.” He seemed to advocate a return to the utopia of the 19th century, when the Ottomans ran Jerusalem.
Lost in much of this discussion is any real knowledge of the history of the Western Wall and the various status quo arrangements that have been made at the site. A survey of that history brings to light documents and disputes from eras gone by, some of which mirror today’s conflict.
In 1881, explorer Sir Charles W. Wilson published a book called Picturesque Palestine. In it he included a sketch of the Western Wall, showing a narrow ally with several black-robed Jewish men standing and a woman kneeling.
“The pavement is at least 70 feet [21.3 meters] above the natural surface of the ground. Jews may often be seen sitting for hours at the wailing place, bent in sorrowful meditation over the history of their race and repeating often the words of the 79th Psalm. On Fridays especially, Jews of both sexes, of all ages and from all countries assemble.”
Lithographs, sketches and later, photos of the Western Wall were part of the travel itinerary of European Christians as well as Jewish travelers. These types of drawings often incorporate similar themes. Some see them as meaningful representations of reality, but art critics and historians often point to the “Orientalist” themes in these views. They sought to capture both the exotic and ruination of the Holy Land. Men and women in European dress don’t appear in photos of the Western Wall until the 1920s. A desire to show desolation might encourage an artist not to place too many figures in his drawing, and a photographer would likely have been banned from the site on Shabbat when it was busiest. Therefore, photographs of the Western Wall on Friday night, when the Jewish throngs apparently visited en masse, are difficult to find.
Photographs often show women clustered together, either behind the men or towards one end. A video uploaded onto YouTube this week to mark Jerusalem Day, restored and preserved by a researcher and historian of Hebrew cinema named Yaakov Gross, provides another view. Called Lives of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, filmed in pre- British Mandate Jerusalem for screening at the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913, it follows a traveler along the railway from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and then shows scenes from the Old City and a Jewish school. The Western Wall is shown crowded with men praying; few if any women can be picked out.
The debate over whether the pictures show women and men praying together needs more than a photo to resolve it. The method of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall was dictated not by the Jews who visited the site, but by the Muslim authorities in Jerusalem. In 1840, the Muslim government had set down that “the Jews must not be enabled to carry out the paving [of the passage along the Western Wall], and they must be cautioned against raising their voices and displaying their books, and that all that may be permitted them is to pay visits to it as of old…”
As Stuart Charme notes in an academic article on the history of feminism at the Western Wall, “Jews were allowed to pray at the Wall as long as they were quiet and behaved themselves.”
In those days, the Jews prayed in an area that consisted of a small alley along the wall which stretched 28 meters along the stones. It was 4 meters wide. The area was owned by the Muslim Wakf and the Jewish community was forced to pay a special tax for the privilege of access. The Western Wall was separated from the Jewish Quarter by an impoverished neighborhood of North African Muslims called the Mughrabi Quarter.
As the Jewish community grew in the 19th century, becoming the majority in Jerusalem in the 1850s, foreign philanthropists such as Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild took an interest in aiding the community in the Old City. One of the first to try to advance Jewish rights at the Western Wall in the 1850s was Hakham Abdallah Somekh, a well-known Jewish sage from Baghdad and the author of Zibhei Tzedek, a handbook of Jewish rulings that was widely known in India and among Mizrahi Jews. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, he sought in vain to buy the Western Wall. Montefiore played a leading role in refurbishing Rachel’s Tomb, and he hoped to have a similar impact on the Wall.
On one of his half-dozen visits to the Holy Land, he also sought permission for the Jews to bring benches to sit on during prayers and to install an overhang to protect worshipers from the rain. Both ideas were rebuffed by the Muslim Wakf and authorities. Rothschild, for his part, negotiated with Turkish Sultan Abdulaziz and his successor up until 1887, in an effort to buy the section along the Wall.
The Jewish Criterion, an American weekly, noted that “the project miscarried [because he] planned to raze several dilapidated old buildings and turn them into gardens. To this, the pious old Jews, who form a sort of religious guard of honor around the Wall, objected, on the ground that it would be a desecration of the holy site, which, in their estimation, must have the appearance of ruin and desolation as it symbolizes the fall of the Temple.”
That so many Jewish philanthropists attempted to find a solution to Jewish suffering at the Western Wall shows that the situation for worshipers there was a major issue for the Jewish community.
In 1912, chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire Haim Nahoum appealed to the sultan to permit the Jewish community to bring benches and chairs to the Wall to aid the elderly. (The rabbi’s tomb in Egypt, where he died in 1960, is today inhabited by squatters.) The Ashkenazi religious court judge Mendel Hacohen Pakover noted that in 1900, on certain major holidays, he encouraged religious Jews to bring a screen to separate men and women. The Muslim community regarded all of these activities as changes to the status quo, and part of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the rights of Muslims in the city – one that should be opposed violently if need be.
With the advent of the British Mandate, the Jewish community in Palestine began to see the Western Wall as an issue related to Zionism and the struggle for the Land of Israel. Traditional Jewish prayer and Zionist ideology dovetailed on this cause. Whereas the Ashkenazi religious establishment tended to be antagonistic towards the Zionists, the Sephardi leadership saw it as an opportunity. Sephardi chief rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel argued that during Yom Kippur and holidays, “members of the two sexes are not allowed to pray together” at the wall and arrangements should be made to separate them. On Yom Kippur in September 1928, Jews “brought a larger ark than was ordinarily used, some mats and lamps, and attached a screen [to separate men and women] to the pavement in front of the wall, all in preparation for the religious services the next morning.”
Muslim leaders, such as Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini, appealed to the British authorities against this “innovation” and violation of the status quo. In response, the British sent in police and removed the screen. A miniature riot between Jews and Muslims also took place.
The dispute over the Western Wall set the Muslim leadership on a collision course with the Jews. The mufti appealed to the Muslim world to back the cause of “al-Burak,” a Muslim holy site he argued was also located at the Western Wall. Burak was where Muhammad the Prophet was said to have tethered his winged steed on his night journey to Jerusalem; coincidentally, it was suddenly incumbent on Muslims to make pilgrimages to the very place that Jews were praying. Like the “discovery” that Rachel’s Tomb is a Muslim holy site, or that holy Muslim graves exist adjacent to the Church of the Nativity in Nazareth, the sudden raising of the Burak issue was related to reasserting Muslim rights.
Then in October, Husseini ordered construction of a new building adjacent to the Western Wall called a zawiya, to be used for the muezzin’s call to prayer. In May 1929, he inaugurated a new ceremony, the Zikr, which involved the banging of drums and clanging of cymbals. The Zikr was timed to coincide with Jewish hours of worship so that as Jews sought to pray, there would be loud music, shouting and a call to prayer taking place just a few meters away. To this was added a new door that the mufti’s followers opened onto the Wall from the Mughrabi Quarter, and Muslims began driving animals and people through the alleyway. The actions were timed to look spontaneous, but British investigations in 1930 found them all to be recent innovations, seeking to annoy or supplant Jewish worship.
In response to the assault on Jewish rights, Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists as well as members of the Maccabi society organized protests in favor of more Jewish rights at the wall.
A Pro-Wailing Wall Committee was established in 1929 by Joseph Klausner, professor of modern Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University. Klausner told his followers: “Do not keep silent or rest in peace until the entire Wall has been restored to us… Explain to the Jewish masses and to the young generation what has been and what is the Kotel to Israel in the past and at present!” On August 15, Zionist activists sang “Hatikva” and raised the Star of David at the Western Wall. Eight days later, Muslim crowds, having read propaganda from the mufti and the Supreme Muslim Council stating that “the Jews’ aim is to take possession of al-Aksa Mosque gradually, on the pretense that it is the Temple, by starting with the Western Wall of this place,” descended on the Orthodox, primarily Sephardi, communities in Safed and Hebron and massacred 113 Jews. Hebron’s ancient Jewish community was devastated.
Jewish circles were divided on the meaning of the events. The leftist Yiddish daily Morgen Freiheit in New York excused the slaughter, saying “Zionist fascists have provoked the Arab uprising.”
Haaretz also editorialized about provocations. Abraham Cahan, the mercurial editor of The Forward, was more sympathetic, writing that “among the mourners of the churban [victims] must be all who feel themselves to be Jews,” but also condemning “irresponsible” behavior.
The British government published two investigations of the pogroms, which they referred to as the “1929 disturbances.”
Based on the investigations, the government favored a return to the status quo at the Western Wall.
The blowing of shofarot by Jews was prohibited, as was the bringing of any chairs or screens, or the use of the Wall for political events. Muslims were prohibited from bringing animals to the site and continuing the Zikr events.
The Wall remained in this condition until 1948, when the Jewish Quarter was evacuated and no Jews were permitted to visit it by the Jordanians.
Under Jordanian rule it languished.
Without Jews at the site, the importance of the Burak site and the need to carry out the Zikr coincidentally vanished.
In 1967, the Western Wall was liberated in those now-famous scenes from the Six Day War, and some two million Jews visited it in the weeks of June. The Muslim Moroccan area next to the Wall was demolished, and its 339 hectares (838 acres) were appropriated by the government. Several Muslim houses and a mosque abutting the Mughrabi ramp that led to the Temple Mount south of the Wall were bulldozed in 1969, to form the current Western Wall Plaza. The area along the Wall was doubled to some 57 meters, and the prayer area was extended down about 2.4 meters to reveal two more rows of Herodian stones.
From the start, there was tension over how the site should look and what traditions should prevail. Soon after its liberation women were separated from men, forming two prayer sections.
However, an Outline Scheme for the Jewish Quarter created in 1972 by planners showed no mehitza, but perplexingly did show a new entrance to the Temple Mount north of the Wall. These plans illustrate the ecstatic feelings of power of the new Israeli authorities at the site. The Jerusalem Municipality and planners felt they had a blank slate to work from. They perhaps did not realize that subtle changes in 1967 would set in stone a status quo.
Soon after the liberation, Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim demanded that authority over the wall be placed with the Chief Rabbinate. A Tunisianborn rabbi and former colonel in the IDF named Yehuda Meir Getz was appointed rabbi of the Western Wall.
Nissim’s choice reflected a wish to include a former soldier knowledgeable in the ways of the world, rather than an Ashkenazi rabbi from one of the non-Zionist haredi yeshivas.
In 1968, Reform Jews sought to hold a mixed prayer session at the Wall, but called off the event at the last minute due to protests from the Religious Services Ministry. An op-ed in Yediot Aharonot mocked the Americans: “And what if tomorrow an organization of hippies should decide to hold a religious orgy at the Wall with LSD and psychedelic music?” However, The Jerusalem Post editorialized: “Now, before temporary arrangements crystallize into ‘rights’ and ‘traditions,’ is the time for those who wish the Wall preserved as a national monument to make their voices heard, and insist that it shall be preserved uncluttered in its ancient starkness, open equally for prayer and meditation.”
Yet as Simone Ricca in the Jerusalem Quarterly notes: “The planned ‘national’ symbolism attributed to the Wall and its actual use was already apparent in 1974, when, after a few years of growing secularization in the commemoration of Tisha Be’av, the traditional character of the celebration reemerged, as indicated in press accounts. With the fading of ‘civil religion’ and of the Zionist narrative, the Wall has been reappropriated by new religious communities.” Thus in just a few short years, the secular Zionist attachment to the Wall was already being challenged and outflanked by a more traditional or Orthodox culture at the site.
In December 1988, The New York Times wrote that when 50 Jewish feminists came to the Wall carrying a Torah, there were “furious protests.”
They quoted Rabbi Getz as saying that “a woman carrying a Torah is like a pig at the Western Wall.” Nine days later they printed a correction: “The statement was made by an unidentified bystander, not by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz.” The 1988 correction is interesting because it illustrates the media fascination with a narrative of feminism versus the Orthodox establishment.
In this case the Times was incorrect, but the desire to see the conflict as a simple black-and-white issue overshadowed a more nuanced historical understanding.
To illustrate what the Wall used to look like before 1967, visitors can go 100 meters north of the site to the area called the “Kotel Hakatan,” or Small Wall. Here, next to the Iron Gate to the Temple Mount, is a small entrance to an alley that runs along the Herodian wall. At the base, near the pavement level, are the large Herodian stones. In recent years visitors have complained that latrines are still emptied onto the site.
Several years ago, the Post reported that a boy was arrested for blowing a shofar at the Small Wall. The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that the police were correct to stop the shofar blowing.
Former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy noted that “there is no reason to blow shofar there, there’s plenty of room at the Western Wall to blow the shofar.”
The Kotel Hakatan still has a similar status quo to that of the Western Wall before 1967, which allows for a view into the past. Similarly, there is no mehitza and benches may not be placed at the site.
Lipman, commenting about the modern controversy, notes: “I was not arguing [in the Knesset] that the mehitza should be taken down… It is a public place and belongs to all the Jewish people, and it is unfair to establish rules if it isn’t impacting me… It is a mistake to put the full demands of a synagogue.”
He argues that a solution could be found in establishing a committee that could help come to an understanding, and “hopefully all parties can find a compromise.”