By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Israel’s government is once again lurching from crises to crises over a deal gone wrong regarding egalitarian and pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall or Kotel. The prayer site is closest to the holiest site in Judaism and a traditional center of pilgrimage and prayer. Since 1967 it has become a major site in Israel that tourists and Jewish visitors come to. National events and army ceremonies take place there. In recent decades there has also been increased demand that it reflect the values of more liberal-leaning diaspora Jews who often attend Reform or Conservative synagogues and have mixed gender prayer. This is anathema to the Orthodox who run the Kotel site and who maintain two sections, one for men and another for women, at the wall.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to balance the demands for a new prayer section with the opposition to it by his own conservative Orthodox coalition partners. He’s a master manipulator and crises-manager, so he sought to keep the discussion going for as long as possible. However a “deal” that was supposed to see the creation of a pluralist section, fell through this week. Headlines read “Shameful day for Israel as it freezes plan for pluralistic prayer site at Kotel,” and “Netanyahu to millions of Jews: We don’t really need you.”
Many have pointed out that “back in the day” the Kotel was more egalitarian. “There was no partition between men and women at the Western Wall before 1967,” one commentator points out. “There was a time when men and women could pray together at the Western Wall. not anymore,” writes another. This narrative is as inviting as it is misleading. The Western Wall was not “egalitarian” before 1967, it was not some sort of utopia of liberal equality. Let’s take a little tour of history.
The “egalitarian” period under the Jordanians: No Jewish prayer allowed
After 1948 Jerusalem was divided by the Jordanian and Israeli militaries along a ceasefire line. The Old City and the Jewish sacred site was under Jordanian rule. Photos from the period reveal a wall mostly devoid of visitors. Israelis were forbidden from visiting it and Jewish prayer and pilgrimage was basically forbidden. Most Reform Jewish leaders who today demand an egalitarian prayer section were silent from 1948 to 1967, they didn’t demand rights of access to Jordanian Jerusalem and a separate section. With the wall “intact” and with no partition between men and women, they didn’t make use of this “egalitarian” time to come to the Wall for events. This was not only due to Jordan, it was also do to the lack of pilgrimage as a central feature of Reform Judaism.
Reform Jewish tradition is to call their synagogues “Temple” precisely to distance members from the need for a new Temple in Jerusalem. One article explains: “When the Reform movement emerged as a lay movement in the first decade of the 19th century, the first ‘temple’ was established in Hamburg, Germany. The use of the name ‘temple’ was intentional. It was a statement about the traditional belief in the restoration of the ancient Temple in messianic times. These Jewish reformers believed that Jewish continuity in the modern civil state was to be maintained by avoiding any whiff of ‘dual loyalty.’ Could Jews be good German citizens and still hope and pray for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple?”
After Israel was established in 1948 it lacked more liberal Jewish congregations (the first was in 1958) which have coed or mixed prayer. As such it is not a surprise that when Israel took the rest of Jerusalem in 1967 there was no immediate call for a mixed prayer section.
Things have changed in recent decades and the Reform Jewish movement has taken major steps to encourage pilgrimage to Israel and connection with the Kotel and Jerusalem.
The demands today for a more egalitarian Kotel have sometimes conjured up a false myth as a talking point about the Jordanian and pre-1967 period, as if somehow that was a period that Israel should learn from. The false reading is myth-making on two levels. First of all, the Kotel was not a free and egalitarian religious space, it was controlled by the Jordanian government and Jews were restricted, and especially Israelis were forbidden to visit it. Second, most diaspora Jews didn’t care about the Kotel in the 1950s and 1960s, if they had then one would expect the kind of protests they launched on behalf of Soviet Jewry to have been a feature of Jewish politics in that era. It wasn’t. In Israel those who sought out the Kotel had to suffice with visits to Mount Zion, where several sites were renovated as Jewish sites (David’s tomb for instance) and religious activities carried out.
The “egalitarian” British era
There is no lack of nostalgia for the “good old days” of the colonial regime period of Mandate Palestine when the British “ran things properly” among some voices. Among the things they supposedly ran properly was the Kotel. In the time of the British the Kotel was a narrow prayer section next to a Muslim neighborhood called the “Maghrebi quarter.”
Few seem to recall that the conflict between Arabs and Jews in British Palestine was directly related to the Kotel and Jewish demands for prayer rights there. The 1929 riots and pogroms against Jews was due to a conflict at the site and was referred to as the “Wailing Wall disturbances” for many years. According to an article on the subject, “The issue of Jewish rights of worship at the Wailing Wall flared up as a result of an incident on 24 September 1928 when the screen separating men and women at the Wall was removed by a British police officer in the midst of prayers on Yom Kippur.” Before 1967 Jews were forbidden from bringing many prayer items to the site. The lack of separation between men and women was not because Jews didn’t want separation, but because they were forbidden to change the site, because it was run by the authorities and Muslim religious leaders saw it as being owned by Muslims. Colonial authorities ran the Wall.
Let’s read on regarding the 1928 incident: “The ensuing outcry of world Jewry and the Zionist movement in the wake of the screen incident was accompanied by an increasing Jewish challenge to the status quo rights of worship at the Wall, as well as demands for possessing the Wall and its surrounding area. Indeed, during the 1920s a number of Zionist and Jewish leaders sought to expand the Jewish standing and rights of worship at the Wall.”
So at the heart of the Jewish and Zionist demands for increased rights to the Wall was the demand to separate men and women as in traditional Orthodox services. Wait a sec. But I thought the “good old days” back then men and women prayed together? Actually they only prayed “together” because Jews were forbidden from making any changes to the site by the British, who were listening to the Islamic Wakf and its demands for a “status quo.”
In the 1920s the Jerusalem Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian nationalist and religious official, created a ’Committee for the Defense of al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Buraq,” and demanded that Muslims have rights to the Kotel area. In November 1928 he gathered Muslims from all over the region “to advance the struggle over the Muslim holy places The appeal to the Arab-Muslim world was followed by a series of provocations on the part of the SMC in the vicinity of the Wailing Wall which meant to disrupt Jewish prayers there, thus intensifying the growing Jewish-Muslim tension.”
Jewish groups were condemned for “the misguided action of the Jewish authorities in introducing a screen on the pavement in front of the Wailing Wall on the Day of Atonement in 1928.” The Mufti didn’t merely instigate riots against Jews in 1929, he also led a campaign to turn the Kotel into a Muslim holy site. He led the construction of a “Zawiyah” or prayer area for Muslims near the Kotel and put up a new mosque and hired a muezzin to shout the call to prayer at Jewish worshippers. A new doorway was opened from the Mughrebi quarter to the cramped and small area that Jews were permitted to pray in next to the wall, so that Muslims could walk along the wall, along with animals. One writer at the time concluded that the “new doorway were dictated less by the needs of the Moslem religion and the rights of property than by a studied desire to provoke and wound the religious susceptibilities of the Jewish people.”
For Jews at the Western Wall in the 1920s, their small prayer area, which was “egalitarian” was interrupted five times a day by the new muezzin hired to pray next to them. The minutes of the British commission to study the 1929 riots notes “His first question related to the building at the Wailing Wall (page 39 of the Shaw report) and the establishment of the muezzin, who took up his station five times a day to officiate at the ‘zawiyah’, which was, he understood, a sort of loggia in which Moslem ritual exercises were performed.”
Just like today when the Palestinians at UNESCO have sought to deny that Jerusalem is holy to Jews, in the 1920s Muslim religious authorities sought to convince the British the same. The 1930 commission of investigation by the British, which was presented to the League of Nations notes “Article 13 of the mandate; it [the Western Wall] was part of the Haram Waqf. The pavement on which the Jews stood in order to pray against the Wall was a part of another Moslem Waqf, not one of the holy places covered by Article 13 of the mandate, but to a certain extent also Moslem religious property, in that it was a part of the Abu Madian Waqf. In other words, it was Moslem religious property without being a sacred shrine.”
Now let’s recall the “status quo” of the Wall at the time. It was a narrow prayer area, a meter or so wide, stretching along the wall. The Mughrabi area next to it claimed that it was part of a Maghrebi Wakf or Muslim religious endowment. The Mufti insitgated frequent Islamic celebrations next to the Wall. The British note: “In accordance with the White Paper issued in 1928, His Majesty’s Government took the view that it was bound to maintain the status quo which it had regarded as being, in general terms, that the Jewish community had a right of access to the pavement for the purpose of their devotions, but might bring to the Wall only those appurtenances of worship which had been permitted under the Turkish regime.”
In those days the Mughabi quarter was expanded and new Arab homes built along the Western Wall. “Of these new buildings to the south of the Wall itself — the zawiyah, Wall, etc., and also a revival of the Zikr in this neighbourhood together with the stationing of a muezzin on the roof of the zawiyah…As regarded M. Rappard’s specific question, the stationing of the muezzin in this neighbourhood had undoubtedly alarmed and upset the Jews; there was no question about that.” The idea was to have a call to prayer on the roofs overlooking Jewish prayer.
And what did the British investigation also conclude: “The Jews were always dissatisfied with a state of affairs which meant that the place which they regarded as the most sacred building to them in the world, and to which for centuries they had resorted for the purpose of prayer, was in the ownership of another faith. For years past the Jews had tried to remedy this state of affairs, which was necessarily irksome and distasteful to them.”
It wasn’t just irksome when it came to ownership. During the 1920s Arabs would bring animals into the Kotel area during Jewish religious events and prayer. The commission notes; “Were the Moslems, on their side, authorised to sound the muezzin, to play music, to pass back and forth on the pavement before the Wall with their domestic animals during the Jewish religious ceremonies?” On holy days, Muslim religious officials encouraged their congregants to play Islamic music at the Kotel. The report notes: “Regarding the reinstitution of the muezzin and of the ceremony of Zikr; it was difficult for those who were not familiar with this latter ceremony to appreciate why it was particularly annoying for the Jews who went to pray before the Wailing Wall…All he could say on the subject was that, arising out of the incident of the screen in September 1928, the Arabs had conceived it to be their duty to emphasise their rights of ownership…Arabs to re-establish ceremonies which would prevent the Jews from carrying out their religious practices in a calm atmosphere.”
During the Ottoman era: Latrines and taxes
The British “status quo” was borrowed from 400 years of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem. During those centuries many Jews came to the city on pilgrimage. The Jewish quarter was situated overlooking the Kotel area, but divided from it by the Moroccan quarter that abutted the wall.
In the “egalitarian” Ottoman era, when we have some images of Jewish men and women praying at the Kotel, the reality was not as utopian as it is present. Public toilets or latrines were constructed by the authorities next to the holy site, recalled visitors. Jews had to walk through sewage to pray, just as in the 1920s they had to navigate animals, sometimes mules, and their feces and people shouting and singing during their holy days.
The legacy of the Ottoman latrines at the wall continued through 1967. When Israelis came to the Wall just after the Six Day War Chaim Herzog recalled that “we found a toiled attached to it.”
”When we visited the Wailing Wall we found a toilet attached to it…we decided to remove it and from this we came to the conclusion that we could evacuate the entire area in front of the Wailing Wall…a historical opportunity that will never return…We knew that the following Saturday, June 14, would be the Jewish festival of Shavouot and that many will want to come to pray…it all had to be completed by then.”
But sewage, animals, animal dung, clanging, and noise were not the only thing Jews walked through to get to the Kotel and had to listen to while they prayed before 1967. During the Ottoman era they also had to pay special taxes just to visit their holy site. Ofer Aderet notes at Haaretz: “The Jews had to pay a tax to the Ottoman authorities in return for a visit to the Wall, and also had to pay the leaders of the adjacent Mughrabi neighborhood, whose residents had a tendency to harass Jewish worshipers. The physical conditions in the vicinity were not exactly inviting: The prayer area was small and lacked any shelter from the elements. Worshipers were thus exposed to the broiling sun in the summer, and to cold and wet weather in winter. Visitors also encountered many Jewish and Muslim beggars, who crowded the alleys leading to the area; broken stones were scattered about, along with refuse and excreta of donkeys and camels.”