The 110-year-old Kotel photo.
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
(nineteen minutes in) depicts the first-ever scenes of Jews praying at the
Western Wall in Jerusalem, according to the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.
July 1, 1930, three League of Nation’s commissioners watched the above footage.
The evidence it presented acted to formally mark Jewish rights to the Western
Wall, redrawing boundaries that had been maintained since Ottoman times and
cementing the wall in its place as the epicenter of today’s
This historic and rare footage of Palestine depicts men and
women at the Western Wall, the women covered in head-scarfs and long dresses,
praying freely next to pious men - with no separator in between
Interestingly, the separator was a point of contention at the time
just as it is today. Under Ottoman status-quo, Jewish worshipers were forbidden
from making any construction, changes or innovations to the area. In September
1928, the Jerusalem commissioner, Edward Keith-Roach, ruled to remove the
gender-segregation screen that had been placed there during Yom Kippur. The
failure to do so let to violent clashes and the destruction of the screen, and
sparked what was to become a year of tensions over control of the wall. As a
holy site for both Muslims and Jews, the wall became a focal point from which to
express discontent and whip up popular support during the British Mandate.
the next year, its bricks were to see savage riots and provocations from both
sides, each seeing the wall as a symbol for national struggle, and, ultimately,
redemption. The riots of 1929, which had spread far beyond the wall, forced the
British government to establish a commission to "inquire into and to pronounce a
verdict upon the disputes that have arisen between Arabs and Jews in connection
with the practice of the Jews to resort to the Western or Wailing Wall (by the
Arabs called Al Buraq) for the purpose of devotion," according to its official
The League of Nations approved the commission, on the basis of two
conditions – that the governing authorities uphold public order, and that the
Mandate do not interfere with the management of any purely Muslim sacred
shrines, the immunity of which was guaranteed by the British.
Rabbi Ben Zion
Meyer Uziel was the sixth in line to testify to the Jewish connection to the
Wall to the members of the International Wailing Wall Commission. The rabbi,
born to a long-standing Sephardi family who had been in Jerusalem for many
centuries, was chief rabbi of Jaffa in 1914 – and was to become the Sephardic
chief rabbi of Palestine two decades later. He was selected to give evidence by
the Pro-Wailing Wall Committee, established in 1929 by Joseph Klausner.
Jerusalemite heritage and prestigious standing in the community gave him a
strong voice at the hearing of the commission, and his testimony challenged
recent restrictions placed on rituals at the Wall by the British. At the morning
session of the hearing, Uziel described Jewish prayer rituals conducted at the
Wall, giving a "summarized delineation of the rituals as applied in practice,"
the notes from the commission state.
His testimony gave evidence to the
ritual objects needed for prayer at the wall, challenging the ban by the British
on construction at the Western Wall area, intended to divert Muslim fears of
Zionist expropriation of the site. The rabbi listed many objects, including the
use of the tallit, prayer books, and the four species used on Succot as
necessary items. Remembering the match that ignited the flame, Uziel also
declared the need for benches for the aged and feeble, mats for kneeling on Yom
Kippur, and a partition to separate men and women. Finally, he stated, on the
surface of the Wall of the Moghrabi Quarter, the Jews would require rows of pegs
for the worshippers to hang their coats and hats.
Such demands were echoed by
numerous witnesses from the Jewish counsel, who gave evidence to the need for
benches, although Arab testimonies deposed that they had never seen any benches
there. The Supreme Muslim Counsel presented a Turkish resolution that stated it
was "inadmissible by Law for chairs, screens…or ally innovation be made which
may indicate ownership…nobody owns the right to place such articles."
counsel produced numerous witnesses, including regular visitors to the Wall
during the years previous to the Great War, to testify that they had "not seen
anything there, on the part of the Jews, like ritual service, nor religious
appurtenances, but only individual lamentations."
Jewish testimonies admitted
that there was a period where no separation wall nor mats or benches were set
down, and this was backed up by the footage of late-Ottoman Palestine presented
by the Jewish counsel.
However, evidence given by high-standing members of the
community such as that of Uziel's, as well as the first-ever moving pictures of
prayers at the wall in 1911, at least convinced the commission of Jewish rights
to the Wall.
The concluding session stated: "During the Turkish regime
and in previous years before the Great War [the Jews] enjoyed the right of free
access to the place as to a religious site."
However, the commission was
reluctant to pronounce any verdict that would give rise to infraction of the
status quo. The bottom line was that the Muslims had "exclusive legal ownership
of the wall," and that their ownership is "incontestable."
Therefore, the Jews
were given permission "temporarily" to bring to the Wall "certain appurtenances
of worship," not including benches or screens. The temporary permission seems to
have been channeled solely to the High Holy Days, of which the Jews were
entitled to bring a prayer-mat to the wall on Yom Kippor and Rosh Hashanah. It
should be noted that blowing the Shofar was forbidden, although following the
commission many continued to flout the ban.
The rabbi's testimony on the
morning of 1st July, 1930, and the subsequent screening of the 1911 footage that
afternoon, assisted in giving a formal nod from the international community to
Jewish claims over the wall. Unbeknown to the commissioners, the wall was to
change hands twice more in just four short decades, and Jewish worshipers would
go from having limited access, to no access, to absolute authority.
Further reading :
WATCH: The Visionary: The Life of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel,
which focuses on the life of the Israel’s first Sephardic Chief
READ: Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade
(Oleg Grabar (Editor), Benjamin Z. Kedar (Editor) on the Temple Mount over the
VIEW: Picture gallery of the Western Wall Riots of 1929 from
the Jewish Virtual Library.
The Western Wall
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