WATCH: The film that saved the wall

This Week in History: Int’l commissioners watch a movie that gave concrete evidence to the Jewish history of the Western Wall.

July 1, 2013 01:18
The 110-year-old Kotel photo

The 110-year-old Kotel photo. (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)

This film (nineteen minutes in) depicts the first-ever scenes of Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, according to the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

On 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 conflict.

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 them.

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.

Over 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 draft.

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.

His 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."

The 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 Rabbi.

READ: Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade (Oleg Grabar (Editor), Benjamin Z. Kedar (Editor) on the Temple Mount over the centuries.

VIEW: Picture gallery of the Western Wall Riots of 1929 from the Jewish Virtual Library.

VISIT: The Western Wall

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