Wednesday, November 3, 2016 was Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. As has been the custom for many years, Women of the Wall conducted group prayer in the women’s section of the Kotel. They were joined by women and men carrying Torah scrolls as part of a protest against the inaction of the Netanyahu government in implementing Natan Sharansky’s Solomonic Kotel compromise.
The Sharansky plan had been endorsed by the World Zionist Congress in the late fall of 2015, and then approved by the Knesset in January 2016. The compromise agreed to retain the current portion of the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue, and to build a similar-size pluralistic prayer section of the wall in the area known as Robinson’s Arch, which would be renamed Azrat Yisrael. Sharansky’s compromise gives representatives of the different streams of Judaism a place on the site’s governing committee.
The plan was accepted by many members of Women of the Wall and by the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements, as well as by quite a few modern Orthodox leaders. As noted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “Judaism in general and the Western Wall in particular are precious and important. It is impossible to leave the future of Judaism to Orthodox Jews alone.”
Regrettably, charedi parties within the fragile Netanyahu coalition successfully froze the Robinson’s Arch project. Month after month, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements reached out to Israeli government officials. They demanded action — but to no avail. Left with no alternative, on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan they joined with WOW in a public display of disapproval. The display was met with hostility and at times violent assaults by charedim in the vicinity. The opponents claim that they will not tolerate any change in the “age-old” status quo.
Sadly, this lamentable scenario just has been repeated by the government of Prime Minister Bennett, whose coalition does not include the charedi parties. Once again promises were made to the Conservative and Reform leadership and to center-left segments of the Knesset. Once again, as reported by the Times of Israel, “Prime Minister Neftali Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana have decided to abandon plans to implement the …. Western Wall compromise.”
As in 2016, the reversal of promises is premised upon bitter and often violent charedi opposition to any “change in the status quo.” In Kahana’s words: “The Western Wall compromise has become a focus for incitement and hatred…. We’re freezing everything at the moment. We’re not touching it.”
Ironically, battles over maintaining “the status quo” at the Kotel are not new. They occurred as early as 100 years ago. In 1911, certain elements among the Jewish worshippers broke with longstanding Turkish policy by attempting to erect a temporary mechitza to separate men and women during moments of collective prayer. Due to Arab complaints, the Turkish officials reinforced their status quo, insisting that no mechitza was permitted. This challenge against Ottoman regulations resurfaced once again in the late 1920s, once the British Mandate had assumed governance.
As recorded by eyewitness Yosef Yoel Rivlin: “Early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur we would go to the Western Wall. That was the time when it was most crowded there, for people from all the different groups would assemble…. Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites and Bucharians. At first there was no partition separating men and women at the Wall [even on Yom Kippur]; the early Sephardim and Perushim did not think of it. But, when the number of [Ashkenazic] Hasidim grew and the group of ‘guardians of modesty’ sprang up, they erected a mechitza in the northern corner of the Wall on the day before Yom Kippur.”
In response to this violation of the rules, a British officer was stationed at the Wall to enforce pre-existing customs. Open confrontation erupted on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1928. There were many Jewish worshippers at the Kotel, and some of them, in open defiance of the British police, put up a mechitza. This act prompted Arab objections and led to British intervention. After failing to persuade the Jews to take down the mehitza peacefully, the British police forcibly removed the screen. The incident inflamed Arab nationalist groups. It was a factor in fomenting subsequent Jerusalem-centered Arab riots in 1929.
The no-mechitza status quo at the Kotel continued until the British left in 1948. Men and women and children of all religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds visited the Wall, since it served as a unifying focus for both religious and national Jewish sentiments. Going back to the days of Herzl, the Kotel symbolized the unity of the Jewish people. As a 1935 guidebook recorded: “On Tisha B’Av, a veritable Jewish migration to the Wailing Wall sets in after dark. The thousands slowly and silently pass before the ever-lasting stones far into the night; young and old, believer and free-thinker, the Old Yishuv from the Street of the Jews and the Halutzim form the colonies and Kvutzot. And if anywhere at all, here and at this hour you can feel that Am Yisrael is alive.”
With the Jordanian conquest of the Old City in 1948, not just a mechitza but all forms of Jewish visitation at the Wall became prohibited. Within 48 hours of Israel’s acquisition of sovereignty of the Old City in June of 1967, just in time for Shavuot, a portion of the adjacent Mughrabi neighborhood was cleared away. The additional space allowed for the Kotel plaza and extended the accessible portion of the Western Wall. In the absence of a mechitza, 250,000 men and women streamed to the Wall as an expression of solidarity, with men, women, and children standing as one.
With Jewish sovereignty affirmed, unfortunately control of the Wall was not placed not into the hands of Jewish Agency, which is representative of both Israeli and world Jewry. Instead, on July 3, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren handed control of the Kotel to the Orthodox Ministry of Religion. Consequently, on July 19, 1967, a mechitza was put into place. For the first time in its history, the Kotel became an exclusively Orthodox synagogue.
Activities that previously had not existed at the Kotel became regarded as the status quo. As noted by Dr. Shulamit Magnus, a leader of Women of the Wall, “The Wall was liberated — for Jews who are men — in 1967, with abundant new customs created since then, but only on the men’s side. To claim that women cannot pray there as a group, with voice, Torah, tallit, tefillin, because these are innovations, ‘violations of custom,’ is absurd. Men doing any of this, or holding bar mitzvah or wedding ceremonies, is an innovation. So is the mechitza dividing men and women. Shall it be abolished on grounds of being an innovation in custom?”
The Kotel, like the State of Israel, belongs to Jews of all religious and secular views. The will of the world Jewry, expressed by the World Zionist Congress, and by large portions of the citizenry of the Jewish state, affirmed by Knesset, ought not be obstructed by charedim who do not want to permit views other than their own. As Natan Sharansky explained in offering his Plan: “[There is an] urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.” In his words, we need “one Western Wall for one Jewish People.”
As noted with dismay by current Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, “a coalition wanting to have a long life would be advised to learn that collation agreements [such as implementing the Kotel compromise] must be honored…. As long as we [the Labor Party] sit in the government we will push for equality of all denominations.”
May we be privileged to witness the return to the Kotel’s true “status quo” as a comprehensive symbol of Am Yisrael!
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell this year; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.