The hottest spot in town

Longstanding territorial troubles at the Western Wall flare up as accusations of a haredi monopoly multiply.

September 25, 2007 07:10
idf induction 224

idf induction 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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It is Shabbat at the Western Wall. The sun is setting, glistening in amber off the domes of Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock. Below, streimels ripple in the evening breeze, nigunim echo off the surrounding stone, women pray quietly behind the high mehitza, while beautiful young girls on the plaza glance flirtatiously at groups of teenage boys. All is peaceful. All? Not quite, actually, far from it. From the beggars pestering tourists for change to teenagers with a little too much leg on display, from the haredi monopoly on permissible religious practices to the long-running rebellion against it, it seems this holy monument, which God is said to have left as a symbol of the eventual return of the Jews from exile, has, on their return, become a symbol of the friction and division within Judaism today. The Wall still has a great appeal for many. For tourists it is the No. 1 attraction in the country. For Israelis it serves the important function of being a center for IDF swearing-in ceremonies and is a place for boys to celebrate their bar mitzvas. The administrators, meanwhile, have made it accessible to Jews all around the world, with a live Web feed from their Internet site. However a single trip to the Wall shows how dominated it is by a single religious sect. On Shabbat you could be forgiven for thinking you had walked into a haredi synagogue. The majority of men praying wear streimels and have peyot. Students from yeshivot march through the promenade, arm in arm, singing nigunim, while many of the women have their heads covered by shawls or wigs. This nonpluralism is grating for members of other streams of Judaism. Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, laments that most Israeli Reform Jews have been put off going to the Wall altogether. He agrees that, because the Reform Movement's attachment to the Wall is essentially existential, as it is for secular Jews - it is significant to them as a fundamental part of their heritage, rather than a remnant of the literal home of God - they are less willing to fight for their right to pray there than the Orthodox. However, he emphasizes that this does not mean that they have less of an entitlement to the place. "I feel we have a historical responsibility for the takeover of the Kotel by religious fundamentalists," Regev says. "When fundamentalist rule had not been firmly established and separation, not just of men and women, but also of the different prayer services had not been established, the religious emphasis could have shifted drastically from fundamentalism to pluralism. "In 1969 we held a convention in Israel. One proposal was to hold an egalitarian service at the Kotel. However there were vehement verbal assaults thrown at us. Eventually, the convention decided to back down. If we had gone through with it, I believe we would have established a precedent that would have developed a pluralist trend." Regev concedes, though, that his power to change the current state of affairs is limited. And his feeling of powerlessness is not alone. Becky Brygel is modern Orthodox. She regularly visits the Wall on Shabbat afternoons, when she says the prayer area is tranquil and beggar-free. She feels uncomfortable with certain aspects of both the fundamentalist attitude that tries to protect its stranglehold on the Wall and people who use it as a forum to make a political point against the haredim. She recounts a time when she took a group of teenage girls there on the March of the Living. They began to dance together, but were attacked by other women who objected to them doing something "non-halachic." "This was the girls' first time down at the Wall and it left a very bad impression with them," she says. "The focus of the Kotel should not be control," Brygel points out. "It is not a banner through which we tell the world which strand of Judaism is dominant, it is supposed to be a symbol of unity." THE WALL is state-owned property. However in 1967, prime minister Levi Eshkol decided to hand over its administration to the rabbinate. This has given the rabbi of the Western Wall, currently Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, control over what is permissible practice there. Sitting behind his desk in an office that overlooks the famous site, Rabinowitz looks the epitome of a haredi. Dressed in a black jacket and hat, he speaks in pointed tones from behind a thick, dark beard. He explains that the Wall should be treated as a unifying factor in Judaism and indeed for the world. Quoting from I Kings 8:41, he says that, while the Wall belongs to the Jews, it is meant to be a place of worship for people of all nations. This, he says, means that a person can pray to whichever god he chooses, however he must do so whilst respecting the Halacha and the Jewish tradition that dates back to the time of the Second Temple. Therefore, according to Rabinowitz, a man must wear a kippa as he prays, there must be a mehitza separating the women from the men and, among other rules women must adhere to, they are not allowed to read from the Torah or to sing out loud. But, for all his protestations of wishing the Wall to be for all Jews, his insistence on these requirements is unpalatable to many. Anat Hoffman is head of the Israel Religious Action Center (which is the legal wing of the Reform Movement) and a member of the Women of the Wall prayer group. "The Kotel can no longer be called a holy place under the existing authorities," she says. She believes that the rabbinate has let the Jewish people down. "They were not able to live up to their rhetoric, they were not able to live up to the holiness of the Wall." She is an advocate of a much greater degree of pluralism and a more malleable approach to tradition which would ultimately allow groups such as the Women of the Wall to pray at the Wall freely. For 18 years the Women of the Wall have been fighting for their right to read from the Torah and sing out loud during services, which they hold at the Wall every Rosh Hodesh. The group's tactics for promoting change have been described by one of its members as trying to "create facts on the ground." As well as fighting for change through the law courts and publicity campaigns, it has held services at the Wall without the authorization of the rabbi. During two consecutive services, this combative tactic led fellow female worshipers to insult them, attack them and, at one point, try to steal their Torah. In a landmark decision in 2002, the High Court of Justice decided to allow the Women of the Wall to worship at the Wall as they wished, free from hindrance. However, after an outcry by the religious parties, which tried to impose a law making the Women of the Wall's actions a crime punishable by seven years in jail, the government asked the court to review the case, saying it could not ensure public safety if the decision stood. The ruling was eventually overturned. Instead the judges decided that Robinson's Arch, an area of the wall further to the south, would be prepared for alternative prayer services. This has left the Women of the Wall's members far from pleased. They view the fact that they have been allocated a spot far from the main tourist attraction as proof that they are being treated as nothing more than second-class citizens. "Robinson's Arch has no symbolic meaning for the Jewish people," Hoffman says. "It is an archeological dig, not a holy site. The government does not even treat it as a holy place. There is no permanent Sefer Torah there, as there is at the main plaza." HOFFMAN ARGUES that the whole dispute, which stems from haredi reluctance to accommodate other forms of prayer service, is illusory anyway. She points out that there is no halachic law which actually prevents women from reading from the Torah or singing aloud. Meanwhile, she argues that Rabinowitz's emphasis on tradition is also largely artificial. Sixty years ago, during the British Mandate, there was no mehitza separating women from men or strict code of prayer. Rabinowitz dismisses Hoffman's arguments. He says that although there is no precise law pertaining to women reading from the Torah, what matters is that there is a law stating that one must respect tradition as if it were law. He also says that it is of no importance that there was no mehitza or regulation of prayer service during the British Mandate, because at that time there were so few Jews praying there that women and men did not need to intermingle. What matters, he says, is what practices were adhered to when the Second Temple still stood. Because Jews are using the Wall as a substitute for the Temple, they must pray as if it were the Temple, in which there was a mehitza and women could not read from the Torah. Hoffman, however, asks why if Rabinowitz places such emphasis on tradition does he keep meddling with it. "The reason God never permitted David to build the Temple was that he was a man of war. He said that no sword must enter His house, so He left it to Solomon, who was a man of peace, to build it," she says. "Yet now Rabinowitz is happy to allow the swearing in of IDF soldiers, who are carrying guns, to take place in the plaza." The real reason, she says, that Rabinowitz does not allow the Women of the Wall to pray there is simply territorial. Although the Women of the Wall have proved themselves to be religiously devoted across three decades of protest and have always conducted themselves in a restrained and respectful way, she says that the haredim see the Wall as their turf and them as imposing upon it. Not everyone sees it that way. Earl Cox is a prominent American evangelical Christian who has a strong attachment to the Jewish people. For 12 months beginning in January 2004 he went to the Wall to pray for eight hours every day. He was motivated to do it by a commitment to the people of Israel, saying, "I believe those who bless Israel will be blessed in turn." Furthermore, as a Christian he says that the Wall has great importance for him because it lies at the location of the second coming of Jesus. During his time there, he was joined by Christians from all over the world, but he never held prayer services or even prayed out loud. He has a reverence for Orthodox Judaism that can be seen in that he calls God by a Hebrew moniker, "Hashem." "I never had any problems with the ultra-Orthodox there," he says. "At the beginning perhaps they resented me being there, but I always respected their customs by wearing a kippa and I never tried to convert anybody or to missionize." After a month or so he noticed that they began to respect his dedication. "One rabbi would bring me a doughnut every morning. He would never disturb my prayer; he would just place it down quietly and leave." He also recalls being invited to join a minyan on several occasions. Cox believes that the haredim have earned the right to control the Wall through their immense dedication to the place. "The ultra-Orthodox are there every day, morning and night. It bothers me that people would go after them." And one would be mistaken in thinking that the haredim have it all their own way though. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Hoffman, people are afraid that there are too many Jews who do not pay significant respect to the Wall's sanctity. On a Friday night in midsummer, a fairly wide dichotomy can be observed between those praying and those standing in the forecourt. Organizations such as birthright take groups of teenagers there every Shabbat in July and August as part of their Israel experience. Many of the girls wear short skirts, though they had been asked to dress modestly by their Israeli guides, showing off the new shade of bronze that the Middle Eastern summer has bestowed upon them. It is clear that this makes many of the religious men extremely uncomfortable. Haredim can be seen staring at the ground as they march through, trying not to glimpse any skin. Rabinowitz says he has had complaints about this from people from all the religious sects and that it has turned into a real problem. Therefore he has proposed placing about 10 women at each of the entrances to make sure girls are dressed modestly as they enter. But Hoffman says that, on this issue as well, the haredim are only too happy to resort to violence and intimidation as a means of getting their way. Besides, she argues, "the Kotel is this young girl's birthright. It should take her doing something very offensive indeed for us to tell her that she should change who she is before she can go there." She dismisses people's anger on this issue as "very trivial." Another sensitive subject which has been brought to the fore this summer (although has been around for a long time) is the many beggars who disturb people as they pray. In the months leading up to the High Holy Days, it is impossible to escape them tying ribbons around your hands and asking for spare change. Begging at the Wall has been illegal since 1981, although action is rarely taken to prevent it. Many people suspect the beggars' sincerity, since they are almost nonexistent during the low tourist season, while others say that such a holy site is not suitable for such practices. Rabinowitz stresses that the act of charity is one of the most important mitzvot that a Jew can perform, however he concedes that the beggars have become a major nuisance. What to do about it, though, is extremely problematic. For a religious movement to be seen manhandling a beggar would be a public relations nightmare. Therefore he has deferred the issue to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, who is in the process of coming to a decision. Hoffman says that the rabbi of the Wall has always been happy to use the beggars for his own purposes. She recalls a conversation she had with Meir Yehuda, Rabinowitz's predecessor, who told her that the only way he could control the religious zealots who tried to disrupt his authority was by allowing some of them to beg in return for keeping a watch over people's activities there. Apparently, even among haredim there are territorial squabbles that surface over such seemingly minor things as the exact positioning of tables or bookcases. ANY FIGHT for reform in the way the Wall is managed is likely to be long and arduous, since the state provides little backing for it. Former religious affairs minister Shimon Shetreet explains that the law provides almost no basis for an argument advocating change to the Wall's rules based on freedom of religion. He points out that the last basic law to pass in the Knesset in 1991, the Basic Law: Human Dignity, made no mention of freedom of religion because of the concern it caused among the religious parties. Meanwhile, a bylaw passed in 1981 bestowed upon the administrator of the Wall, appointed with the government's authorization the power to eject people who dress inappropriately, hand out fliers against his authorization, beg or hold an unauthorized religious service. Theoretically the rabbi of the Western Wall is accountable to the Prime Minister's Office for what happens there. But Hoffman complains that the government allows itself to be pressured by the threat of haredi violence. In stark contrast with foreign policy, she says that when faced with threats against fellow Jews from Jewish religious fundamentalists, the government caves in, such as in the case of the Women of the Wall. "They are secular Jews who see Orthodoxy as the 'true' form of Judaism and through this have handed over control of religious affairs to it," she says. The Prime Minister's Office responds that "there is no justification for any violence against worshipers and, in the case of violence breaking out, law enforcement bodies enforce the law to protect the people concerned." It also points out that millions of shekels were spent on the Robinson's Arch prayer area which, at the time of the High Court ruling, all the parties involved agreed upon. Where to go from here is not an easy question to answer. Rabinowitz is adamant that there should be no change at the wall and he appears to have the government behind him. His opponents know what they think should happen, be it a division of the wall based on partition or time sharing. According to Hoffman, the Wall should be turned into a national monument over which no religious group has control. But implementing reform will be difficult. Regev is pessimistic that any change will come soon. "At this point, the unholy alliance of religion and state still has a hold on Israel. It is preventing greater accommodation at the Wall and it will continue to for years to come." Muslims and the Wall The Western Wall has a certain, controversial significance for Muslims as well as Jews. In Arabic it is called Al-Burak. The name is derived from a ninth-century legend in which Muhammad is said to have left Mecca on a night journey on the back of a winged creature called Al-Burak, which took him to the farthest mosque in the lands of Islam, the Aksa Mosque. It was said that Muhammad tied up his steed to the wall below, from where the connection is derived. In the Mameluke period Islamic scholars tried to ascertain which mosque Al-Aksa was and decided that it was the Jerusalem mosque which bears the name today. At the time it was believed that the wall he tied the creature to was the southern wall, which is the closest to the mosque itself. It was only in the early 20th century the link to the Western Wall first began to gain prominence. As the city's Jewish and Muslim communities began to fight for dominance over the site, the British Mandatory government decided to institute a "status quo" in which the Jews were allowed to continue to pray there on the condition they did not bring tables or chairs up to the Wall. The 1929 Arab riots, in which dozens of Jews were killed, broke out in part because Orthodox Jews continued to try to bring a mehitza to the Wall. However, according to Moshe Sharon, a professor in Islamic history at the Hebrew University, the Muslim connection is a complete fabrication. "Jerusalem is unimportant to Islam until someone else wants it," he says. He points out that there is no mention of Jerusalem in the Koran and also denies that there is any mention of the Western Wall in early Islamic writing. "Even the tradition that the Aksa Mosque is the actual mosque to which Muhammad traveled was disputed in the Mameluke period, when there were many alternative traditions saying that Al-Aksa was somewhere else." That there was never a mosque built at the Wall nor did Muslims ever pray there, even in the early 20th century, Sharon argues, is proof of the lack of religious value it actually has for them. The real reason, he argues, for its rise to prominence was that anti-Zionists, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, an ally of Adolf Hitler, saw it as a powerful symbol in the struggle against Jewish statehood. To this day it remains a powerful propaganda tool in the Muslim world. In February 2000, Egypt's leading Muslim authority, Sheikh Nasser Farid Wassel, decreed that the Western Wall remain an Islamic endowment forever. Wassel claimed the Burak Wall is a part of the western wall of the Aksa Mosque. He added that the wall would belong to all Muslims "until the end of the Earth."

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