Some good Western Wall-related news may be on the horizon. Appealing to
partisans’ goodwill and good sense, Natan Sharansky, the legendary Soviet Jewish
dissident now heading the Jewish Agency for Israel, is pushing a compromise that
will end the humiliating prospect of the police arresting women for the
non-crimes of premeditated praying, criminal kaddish-saying, illegal
tallit-wrapping, and unauthorized phylactering.
Rumors claim that a third
area next to the current women’s area will be designated for mixed praying. I
hope this third area opens soon, with easy, 24/7 access and no restrictions on
Jewish prayer services.
But I also hope the site’s historic integrity is
respected. Our mantra should be: Elevate “the Robinson’s Arch area” spiritually
and popularly, rebrand it as the Southwestern Kotel; just don’t elevate it
The reports suggest that to satisfy the Women of the Wall’s
demand for full equality, the Southwestern Kotel area will be raised, offering
worshipers a common entrance to all three prayer spaces. Having championed this
compromise for years, most recently in a mid-January Jerusalem Post column, I am
thrilled. But a committee of smart archeologists, architects, rabbis, historians
and tour guides should oversee the renovations, guaranteeing easy access without
violating the beauty of the area below the current Kotel plaza, which
archeologists uncovered so painstakingly.
At present, the Southwestern
Wall is less sterile than the better-known, sanitized northwestern Kotel Plaza.
As you approach the Southwestern Wall – which is as holy and historic as the
northwestern sector – stone structures marking an ancient street evoke the Holy
Temple’s glorious past. Some boulders look suspended in midfall, catapulting us
back to the horrors of the ninth of Av, 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the
temple and launched our long exile.
Equally powerful is the Hebrew
inscription carved into the Wall there, meters higher than where we stand, from
Isaiah 66:14: “And when ye see this your heart shall rejoice and your bones
shall flourish like an herb.” Some unknown, post-exilic Jewish dissident etched
this historic graffiti into the wall centuries after the destruction, when
landfill on the site grew high enough to reach that level. Its message testifies
to Jewish grit during millennia of misery, while its discovery celebrates our
return so we can flourish like a whole flower-garden, not just an
Obscuring that “Isaiah stone” or re-burying the street and stones
would be a crime against archeology and an act of historical desecration, not
justified by today’s politics.
I respect both sides’ demands. Unlike many
on the Left, I acknowledge that the ultra-Orthodox have a valid argument here –
they have rights, too, including praying in the way that makes them comfortable
at Judaism’s holiest site.
Unlike many on the Right, I believe the Kotel
should also be an open, welcoming prayer space for all, given modern Judaism’s
diversity, and the Kotel’s unique status as both a national and religious site,
embodying the duality whereby Jews both believe in the Jewish religion and
belong to the Jewish people or nation.
SOME HISTORICAL perspective helps
here. Back in September 1928, when Jews brought some seats for old worshipers
and portable screens (mehitzot) to separate male from female worshipers, the
local Arabs objected. They claimed that any additions to the sites were Zionist
attempts to take over what they considered to be Muslim property and turn it
into a synagogue.
The resulting tensions eventually spilled over into the
infamous riots of 1929, also known as the Western Wall Uprising. In one week of
rioting in late August that year, Arabs killed 133 Jews and wounded 339, while
the British police killed 110 Arab rioters.
This horrible incident proves
that the Western Wall was not “always” a synagogue as some claim and that
mehitza melees have a long pedigree.
But it also suggests that
religiously inflamed fights over this symbolically rich spot can easily escalate
and deteriorate. Nearly a century later, in our democratic state, we can do
better – we must do better.
Turning the historical clock even further
back, this Western Wall skirmish is only the latest in an ongoing war between
reformers and traditionalists, launched by Judaism’s clash with modernity in the
18th and 19th centuries. Most major Jewish movements today – including Zionism,
secularism, the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Orthodox
movement, and the ultra-Orthodox movement – emerged as responses to that moment
when Judaism was mugged by modernity. Understanding this struggle’s depth and
complexity should humble us all, freeing all factions from believing they have
the monopoly on truth or that Judaism is as monolithic as it was in Moses’s
Therefore, in the spirit of constructive Israeli democracy and
Zionist dream fulfillment, duly cowed by the mysteries of tradition and
modernity, we should repudiate some of the absurd arguments, foolish actions and
bad law this controversy has stirred. As an American historian, and as a Jew who
resents false Holocaust analogies and the insulting attempt to compare Israeli
policy with South Africa’s appalling racist apartheid regime, I bristle when
Women of the Wall supporters make insulting, inaccurate American Civil Rights
Fighting for access to one prayer space does not
compare to the struggle against legal segregation.
Those who claim that I
and other moderates therefore would have abandoned Rosa Parks when she was
barred from sitting where she chose on a public bus lack proportion, diminishing
what black Americans endured in the 1950s Jim Crow South. At the same time,
jailing women in the Jewish state for expressing their Judaism freely,
undermines respect for the rule of law, mocks the Zionist dream and risks making
Israel an international laughingstock.
FINALLY, THE Supreme Court’s
flawed decision distorting and broadening America’s “fighting words” doctrine by
curtailing women’s freedom of religion at the Wall to avoid a violent reaction
unfairly gives violence a veto, confusing victims with victimizers. Individuals
must remain responsible for their actions, be they relatively harmless religious
fanatics offended by women praying, or murderous Palestinian terrorists who
object to Israel’s existence. “I couldn’t help myself” is something we teach
threeyear- olds to outgrow, not a doctrine worthy of a democratic state.
Menacing bullies are criminals; their potential victims deserve police
protection, not arrest threats.
Similarly our desire for equality cannot
blind us so much that we pillage our historical past.
Equality is not
sameness; dignity often entails diversity. Most stopped believing in the
equality of suffering long ago. We remember the foolish fanaticism of early
kibbutzniks, who filled warehouses with phonographs and other modern gizmos,
proclaiming that if everyone could not afford to own something no one should.
Eventually even the purists acknowledged the range of human experience,
interest, ability and resources, thereby tolerating some differences rather than
imposing a Stalinist sameness on all. It would be ironic and tragic if a
campaign launched to acknowledge the modern Jewish world’s dynamic diversity
ended up destroying the Southwestern Wall’s beauty and integrity to impose an
We would then risk making that part of the Wall a
shrine to a false god (or goddess) of totalitarian equality.
beg Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: Accept this elegant
Make the Southwestern Wall free and open to all around the
clock. Encourage the printing of postcards and posters celebrating that part of
the Wall as “the Kotel,” too. Note how quickly “that” part of the Wall becomes
“the” Wall to most people. Show respect for it by visiting there and hosting
national ceremonies there.
And use this compromise to launch your new
government in a spirit of moderation and compromise. But be wise, too. Guarantee
that the Southwestern Wall is validated and respected, but not so modernized it
ends up desecrated.
Jewish legend has it that when the Temple was being
built, wealthy Jews financed the northern, southern and eastern walls, while the
poor people built the Western Wall, humbly, with their own sweat and labor. That
personal investment kept that wall alive when the Romans pillaged, as it was
buttressed by the people’s piety. Millennia later, we have a chance to write a
new chapter in the history of this People’s Wall, using it to spread an epidemic
of good sense and good will among the Jewish people, in the State of Israel, and
throughout the world. ■
The writer is a professor of history at McGill
University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel research fellow in Jerusalem.
His most recent book,
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as
Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.