Whose Wall is it anyways?

A new plan for the Kotel plaza heightens tension between the haredim and everyone else.

Western wall (photo credit: Courtesy)
Western wall
(photo credit: Courtesy)
MONDAY MORNING, 7 A.M., AT THE Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, a mid-October day, the first day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan.
On Mondays and Thursdays, Jews traditionally read from the Torah and dozens of families have come to the Kotel (wall, in Hebrew, as the Western Wall is familiarly called) for their sons’ bar mitzva ceremonies as the 13-year- old boys wrap phylacteries around their heads and forearms for the first time. The Kotel plaza is filled with families from all over the country, and some from abroad, who have come to celebrate, dragging food baskets and surrounded by groups of drummers and shofar blowers.
In the men’s section, worshipers have divvied up the space into separate groups of minyanim, for Ethiopians, Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Hasids. Off to one side, Torah scrolls are displayed in an ark and numerous padded chairs are available for the taking. A small section is shaded.
Over in the women’s section, women stand perilously on chairs on their designated side of the seven-foot high partition that divides the men’s section from the women’s section. They peek over at the men and boys, ululating in high-pitched ku-lu-lu’s and throwing candies. Closer to the Wall, women pray silently, some sobbing softly.
At a short distance, Women of the Wall, a group of women who seek to pray out loud at the Kotel, sing the special prayers for the new month. Created in 1989 by Orthodox women from both the US and Israel, the group meets at the beginning of every Hebrew month. Afew haredi men and women try to hush them, but the women ignore them.
Dozens of tourist groups mill about, guides competing among themselves in an effort to be heard above the din. Among them is a group of elderly Jewish tourists on an organized tour from Miami, who try to listen to the guide’s explanations and are then sent – men and women separately – to pray or to press a slip of paper between the Wall’s ancient stones. In the women’s section, the women pray silently, pressing up close to the stones, many with baby carriages and toddlers in tow. There is no shelter, only a few plastic chairs, and certainly no designated space to change a diaper.
A battalion of ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Fund, the non-profit group that is responsible for the administration of the Wall, swoops down suddenly on the tourists, ensuring that the men and women are separated; they admonish the women to cover up every inch of their arms, legs and necklines and push tattered shawls at them, demanding that they wrap themselves to ensure their modesty. Four of the women from Miami step back, seemingly repelled by the dusty strip of cloth that the ushers have forced into their hands.
The Kotel is so significant in Jewish history that it is known as “The” Wall, without any further explanation. Throughout the generations, and with increasing intensity since Israel recaptured the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, it has been thought of as a symbol of Jewish history and unity. “The Kotel belongs to everyone …it is the most precious symbol of our togetherness here in Israel,” observes Rachel Azaria, city councilwoman for the Yerushalayim party, which is part of Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition.
BUT IT WILL NOT BE EVERYONE’S KOTEL FOR LONG, if a new master plan for the site, recently passed by the Municipal Planning and Construction Committee, is implemented.
According to the proposal, a large entry terminal will replace the current haphazard entrance at the Dung Gate in the Old City wall. From there, a large tunnel will create two levels leading towards the Kotel. Observant men will be permitted to enter the tunnel where, stairs, a ramp and possibly an elevator, will lead up to the Wall. This will enable men to reach the prayer area of the Kotel without having to encounter visitors whose dress or demeanor is, in their eyes, immodest or inappropriate. The upper level, which is the current ground level, will remain open to everyone else, although it is still unclear if there will be separation between men and women in this area as well. Women who wish to pray will have to cross the plaza to get to the women’s section, which will remain unchanged. According to the plan, a one-way mirror serving as a movable divider, will replace the current one, allowing the women to see the men but not to be seen by the men and enabling officials to temporarily increase, or decrease, the size of the women’s section, which is currently about one-third of the size of the men’s section.
True, the current situation pleases no one, except perhaps for a few tourists who seem to enjoy the Middle-East bazaar-like character. The Kotel plaza is dirty, there aren’t enough bathrooms and the few that do exist are filthy. There is a constant stream of individuals claiming to be in direct contact with God or the Messiah incarnate, who seem to be suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome – a formally recognized psychiatric illness that afflicts some who visit the Holy City for the first time. Beggars and pickpockets mill about.
But the new plan displeases everyone even more.
Except, that is, for the official responsible for the administration of the holy sites in the city, including the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who is a civil servant paid by the government. At a committee meeting in preparation for discussion of the plan, Rabinovitch declared, “We have to build a separate passage for the worshipers, so that they will not have to go through the main plaza.” Rabinovitch was later quoted on a religious news site as saying, “This is an excellent solution. It will enable every Jew who wants to pray at the Wall to go straight to the prayer site, without encountering forbidden scenes, such as visitors who are dressed immodestly.”
Thus, for the first time, there will be an official distinction between ultra-Orthodox men and everyone else, including women of all denominations, secular men and women, tourists, Jews and non-Jews.
Before it can be finally approved, the plan must pass the Regional Planning Committee; if it encounters significant public opposition, the plan will be brought to the National Planning Council.
In fact, the plan may never be implemented.
But the intent of the plan’s supporters is clear, warns Yisrael Harel, a leader of the settler movement and director of the rightwing Zionist Strategy Institute, and currently president of the Association of Reserve Paratroopers, who fought as a paratrooper during the Six Day War and was among the first soldiers to reach the Wall.
Heatedly, he tells The Report, “My friends shed their blood for the Kotel. They did so in order that this would become a national gathering site, a place where the heart of every Jew, secular and religious, beats strongly.”
But the Wall is becoming a battleground once again, and this time the battle is being waged by groups of non-Zionist ultra- Orthodox Jews who reject the sovereignty of the State and the significance of its national symbols and want to turn the Kotel into a haredi prayer site.
THE WESTERN WALL, also known as the Wailing Wall, is the retaining wall of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 BCE. Ever since then, until June 1967, the area was little more than a narrow alleyway, hidden from sight, where men and women prayed together, huddled by the stones.
Within days of the conquest, the area surrounding the wall was razed and the residents of the neighborhood known as the Mugrabi area, mostly the descendents of Muslim pilgrims who settled in the area at the end of the 19th century, were dispersed throughout the Old City and East Jerusalem. This was done, authorities said, in order to make room for the throngs of Jews who were expected to make their way to the Kotel and touch its stones.
And, indeed, the throngs did come to the Wall and, for some three decades, the Western Wall and the plaza in front of it served as the site for national ceremonies and celebrations. The IDF held swearing-in ceremonies for new recruits; the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Absorption Ministry, and aliya associations like Nefesh B’Nefesh or Ami sponsored ceremonies in which new immigrants receive their Israeli ID cards; school groups and students returning from trips to Poland and the death camps affirmed their commitment to Judaism and life; volunteers came to taste what their guides tell them is the essence of Jewish history.
According to information provided by the municipality, some eight million visitors come to the Western Wall every year; by 2025, that number is expected to nearly double. On the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, observed as the date that the Second Temple was destroyed, and on the eve of the Shavuot festival, the Kotel plaza is crowded with allnight study groups. And according to figures provided by the police, on the two nights before Yom Kippur 2010, some 500,000 people packed into the Old city and its surroundings; most of them visited the Wall.Yet, despite its significance and popularity, there has never been any comprehensive plan for the area nor any real public debate regarding the significance of the Western Wall and plaza. And in the absence of formal planning, the influence of the ultra-Orthodox has been constantly increasing.
The first divider between men and women was put up about a month after the Wall was captured, during a mass thanksgiving prayer organized, paradoxically, in July 1967 by the then-head of the American Reform movement, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, to mark the end of the International Reform Conference held in Jerusalem that summer. According to Rabbi Nava Hefetz, a member of the Rabbis’ Council in Israel, in accordance with Reform observance, Schindler planned to have men and women sit together during the services. A group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who had posted themselves as the Kotel’s guardians – to this day, it remains unclear who appointed them and under what authority they were acting – complained to then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, a secular Jew, who capitulated to their demands. Eshkol is reported to have informed Schindler, “When half a million Reform Jews make aliya, then you can have mixed seating at the Kotel.”
The divider between a men’s section and a women’s section went up – and has not been removed since, although it has certainly grown higher, more opaque, and thicker, and the women’s section has become smaller.
Over the past few years, the nationallyoriented and non-ultra-Orthodox ceremonies have gradually been cancelled. In July 2007, the Absorption Ministry refused to accept the increasingly strict gender separation and moved the reception for the new immigrants to the airport. Women soldiers were first forbidden to audibly declare allegiance to the state and then were forbidden to sing the national anthem during national ceremonies. Now, the IDF Rabbinate’s choir, composed solely of men, sings the anthem at national ceremonies and women soldiers are rarely even invited.
In 2005, Women of the Wall were banished from the women’s section to the area of Robinson’s Arch, a nearby archeological site, because the sight of women wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl) and the sound of their voices was offensive to the haredi men and women who pray at the Kotel. Abill passed in the Knesset in 2005 sentences anyone who offends the customs of the Kotel – including women who wrap themselves in prayer shawls – to up to six months in jail and a 10,000 shekel ($2,800) fine. Similarly, non- Orthodox groups are permitted to hold ceremonies only at Robinson’s Arch.
School children rarely visit now, since the ushers enforce separation between the boys and the girls and forbid even the boys from wearing their usual casual clothes.
THE NEW PLAN WAS PREPARED by the Western Wall Heritage Fund, in cooperation and consultation with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Israel Police, the Ministry of Tourism, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Prime Minister’s Office.
The behavior of the ushers – referred to by non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis as the modesty patrol or “the Taliban” – begs the question: Why has the State of Israel handed management of the Kotel to a non-profit organization?
The Western Wall Heritage Fund has been responsible for the administration of the Kotel since 2004. Established in 1988, it is a nonprofit organization operating as a unit within the Prime Minister’s Office and is dominated by ultra-Orthodox figures like Rabinovitch.
According to dates provided to The Report by the Prime Minister’s Office, between 1998 and 2005, the fund received 57 million shekels ($16m.) from the government and another 4.8 million shekels ($1.4m.) were allocated for rehabilitation of the “Mograbi Passage,” which leads to the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and considered the third most holy site in Islam).
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office, who spoke with The Report on condition of anonymity, says that the group was given control over the Kotel area “out of respect for Muslim sensibilities,” so that Muslim officials would not have to deal with the Prime Minister’s Office, which could be politically and religiously uncomfortable.
But the source also acknowledges that “the Western Wall Heritage Fund is promoting its own interests, which are not always in line with the interests of the state, including the exclusion of the non-Orthodox denominations from the Kotel.”
“The fact that haredi men will be able to go through a tunnel is some sort of a selfinflicted punishment,” councilwoman Azaria observes cynically. “They will have to go underground while everyone else will enjoy the view.” But immediately becoming more serious, she adds that she is enraged by the motives behind the plan. Azaria, who defines herself as a modern-Orthodox woman, says heatedly, “The fact that haredi men view me as a sexual object, and that just seeing me causes them to think impure thoughts, infuriates me. It’s no less offensive than sexist advertisements that use women to promote products.”
The haredi men’s desire to walk separately is not the point, she says, but rather the slippery slope. “Who knows where this can lead?” she asks rhetorically. “Today they separate men from women, tomorrow religious from non religious, and then what? Ethiopians from other Israelis? Jews from non-Jews?” Anat Hoffman, head of the Center for Religious Pluralism, which is sponsored by the Reform Movement in Israel, and chairwoman of the Women of the Wall, was arrested two months ago, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, after holding a torah scroll in the women’s section; if convicted, Hoffman could be sentenced to three years in prison.
“The first thing that you see from the plan is that the men are defined as worshipers and the women are in the role of passive spectators,” Hoffman says. And that is unacceptable. Even the so-called upgraded divider makes the same point: Women are supposed to watch men pray, and they have no real role.”
Hoffman emphasizes that she does not object to separating worshipers from nonworshipers. “If they would let everyone who wants to pray – without any consideration of their denomination or their gender – to enter separately from the tourists and the visitors, I would certainly agree. But this plan says something else: It says there are ‘serious’ worshipers, who are haredi men. And then there’s everyone else.”
It is not only women and religious groups who are upset. Azaria is a prominent leader among the ad hoc, informal groups, which are attempting to regain “Israeli, Zionist sovereignty in Jerusalem, in general, and at the Kotel, in particular.” She was the main force behind the large demonstration, held in Jerusalem in December 2009, in support of Nofrat Frankel, who had been arrested a few days before during the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayers because she had been wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel plaza.
Zvia Tuval, 29, a Hebrew University education student, participated in that demonstration. She defines herself as “completely secular” and says she would be willing to join in a protest movement in order to “reclaim the Kotel. For too many years, we’ve let extremists set the tone in this city. This is my city, too. And we’ve let them take over everything that has any Jewish meaning. I haven’t gone to the Kotel in years. I am ashamed and embarrassed at how dirty it is, I am embarrassed by those “Taliban” women who tell me how to dress. But now I’m going to visit more often, because it’s mine, too.”
But Rabbi Itzhak Pindrus, deputy mayor of Jerusalem representing the Torah Judaism party, insists that there is “no other way to deal with the Kotel. The Kotel area is not a trendy seashore. Has anyone heard of people visiting churches, anywhere in the world, dressed the way people allow themselves to be dressed in the Kotel area? Have you ever heard about Christian groups fighting for the right to visit the Vatican wearing swimsuits? Or anything of the sort in Mecca?” he demands.
Asked about the proposed separation between “observant” and “non-observant” Jews, he answers angrily, “I am a religious man. I come to the Kotel to pray. I should not have to see indecently dressed women, who sing loudly and disturb me. In fact, we haredim ask only that no one interfere with our basic right to live according to our customs – at the Kotel, in our neighborhoods, in our schools.”
Pindrus continues, “Why do secular people come to the Wall anyway? They say they come to keep in touch with their roots. But what are these roots about if they are not worshipping God and observing the religious context.”
“WE NEED SOME ORDER in the Kotel, we can’t continue with this mess,” says Kobi Kahlon, chairman of the municipal planning and construction committee and deputy mayor. Kahlon tells The Report that the increasing numbers of visitors to the holy site has made the area impossibly crowded; basic services and amenities for tourists are inadequate and there is a clear need for a new overall plan. He argues that the new master plan had been drawn up in consultation with “all of the relevant authorities, including archeologists, urban planners, and architects, and this guarantees that it will be successful.”
But in addition to not consulting with nonharedi groups, planners did not consult with Muslim groups, either.
Dr. Rami Nassrallah, head of the International Peace and Cooperation Center, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian NGO that deals with urban planning and rights, tells The Report that “the plan for the Kotel alone would not concern the waqf or any other Muslim group. But the plan also includes rehabilitation of the Mugrabi Gate and digging a tunel, which will concern them a lot.”
At a minimum, Nasrallah says, the authorities could have informed the waqf about the plan. “So far, the police have served as an excellent bridge between the waqf and the Muslim authorities, and they could have been involved for this purpose, too. But obviously, no one gave it a thought.”
Dr. Amon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, an independent think tank, says that he is “not surprised that nobody cared to inform the Muslim community and institutions. The Arab residents of Jerusalem, including the waqf and other institutions, are not represented in any forum, not even unofficially. And so the Israelis act as if sovereignty in East Jerusalem is a fact, and this situation is disrupted only when the international community interferes and embarrasses the Israeli authorities.”
Noting that the Muslims are divided among themselves, and that the various factions within the Palestinian Authority, the Jordanians, and the Islamic movements, including the radical northern Israeli Islamic movement, all vie for influence, Ramon says that this is another reason that Israel believes it can act unilaterally, even in such a religiously and nationalistically sensitive spot. Furthermore, he warns, the project will require large-scale digging “and when you dig in this area, you never know what might come out of the earth.”
In the past, digging, such as the digging that led to the opening of the Western Wall Tunnels in 1996, archeological excavations, and even routine maintenance, have led to violent rioting and loss of life.
In a written statement to The Report, Rabinovitch responds, “The Western Wall Heritage Fund is responsible for accommodating the needs of the visitors to the Kotel, while showing the utmost respect for the sensitive fabric of the area. This sensitivity is even more pronounced, given the widespread and irresponsible work being conducted by the Muslim waqf. For years, I have maintained restraint with regard to the unprecedented historical and archeological crime committed over the past few years by the waqf in order to prevent the escalation of tensions. It is not unreasonable, in my opinion, to expect the same degree of public responsibility from the Arab leadership.”
Asked about the non-involvement of the Muslim authorities, Kahlon answers that he “doesn’t understand the question. The plan deals only with the Kotel plaza, and has nothing to do with the mosques above.” He says he does not “foresee any particular problem” from Muslims.
In response to The Report’s inquiries, the municipality sent an official press release about the plan, stating that the local planning committee “welcomes and approves the plan submitted by the Western Wall Heritage Fund.” A source in the municipality, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because, he says, “the situation with regard to the Wall is so sensitive,” and no one has the authority to respond to the press, tells The Report that “under the current circumstances, there is no chance that we will be able to budge the haredim. Maybe we’ll just have to establish a second Kotel, in the area of Robinson’s Arch, which will be for all Israelis and will be open to everyone.”
Harel concludes bitterly, “We are watching the Kotel turn into a haredi site. When we, religious and secular soldiers, fought for the Kotel, we never believed it would become a haredi synagogue. I never risked my life, and my companions were not killed, in order for Rabinovitch and his partners to transform the site. The public, and especially the Zionist public, has the responsibility to be in the forefront of this struggle; otherwise, the haredim will manage to alienate the public even from this symbolic site of unity.”