A call to revolt, 90 years on

The presence of a prayer partition separating men and women at the Western Wall sometimes caused some contretemps and Muslim protestations.

RABBI MOSHE SEGEL (fourth from left) with the writer (right) at prayer before the Al-Aksa Mosque, 1979. Gershon Solomon is sixth from left (photo credit: YISRAEL MEDAD)
RABBI MOSHE SEGEL (fourth from left) with the writer (right) at prayer before the Al-Aksa Mosque, 1979. Gershon Solomon is sixth from left
(photo credit: YISRAEL MEDAD)
Yom Kippur 5691 fell on a Thursday – October 2, 1930. The next day’s edition of The Palestine Bulletin, the forerunner of this newspaper, informed its readers on page one that “an incident took place last evening when a young Jewish enthusiast desired to have the ram’s horn blown contrary to the temporary regulations issued last year.... Mr. [Julius] Jacobs argued with the youth and tried to persuade him to visit the synagogue nearby.... This he refused to do, and he was accordingly placed under arrest. One hour later he was released.” But let us go back two years to a previous Yom Kippur, which fell on September 24, 1928, to understand the event.

According to a memorandum by Leopold H. Amery, the colonial secretary, issued on November 19, titled “The Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem,” what happened was that without “prior consultation with the proper officers of government as to the arrangements for the services at the Wall,” Jews had affixed a mechitza (partition) to the pavement adjoining the Wall, and, among “other innovations,” additional petrol lamps, a number of mats and an ark “much larger than was customary” were brought to the site.

Incidentally, the mechitza itself was put up by the Radzymin Rebbe, Aharon Menachem Mendel Gutterman (1860-1934), head of the Meir Baal Haness charity, who was visiting at the time.

Called to the area, Inspector Douglas Duff and the district commissioner of Jerusalem, Edward Keith-Roach, requested of the chief Ashkenazi gabbai, Rabbi Noah Baruch Glaszstein, that evening to have the screen removed. It did not happen.

The following day, as Duff relates in his book Bailing with a Teaspoon, he and other policemen came down from Mount Scopus. They removed the partition as Jewish women hit them with their parasols. After tearing down the partition, a Jewish man clung to it as Duff and his men pushed through the angry crowd. Duff tossed the partition, along with the man still clinging to it, a distance from the Wall. According to Davar of September 28, an American Jewish woman was injured in the melee.

THIS WAS not the first time the presence of a prayer partition separating men and women at the Wall, had caused some contretemps and Muslim protestations.

During the Turkish regime, there were rulings throughout 1910-1913, regarding Tisha Be’av prayers, Shabbat and holidays, prohibiting Jews to erect a screen on the wall pavement or bring chairs, which were opposed by the Jewish leadership.

In February 1922, the Supreme Muslim Council asked the British Mandatory government to remove seats and benches from the Wall, claiming the Buraq site, the Arab name for the section of the Wall, was Wakf Islamic religious trust property.

Through the period 1922-28 at least 13 additional complaints against Jewish trespassing were forwarded to the Mandatory government by the Wakf and by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti. On Yom Kippur 1925, the Wakf officials forced the removal of benches.

Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook had asked the government already on May 30, 1920, “to entrust the Wall to the care and control of the representative of Jewry.” Three days later a memo was sent to Ronald Storrs, then military governor of Jerusalem, by the Chief Rabbinical Council that the “Holy Wall is the property of Israel. No other person or persons is allowed to touch it.” A petition was sent by Kook to King George V to plead for Jewish rights.

But the mufti would have none of this, and the British regime caved in.

TWO MONTHS after the mechitza incident, on November 19, 1928, one of the least-known British White Papers, Cmd. 3229, was issued. Authorized by Leopold H. Amery, secretary of state for the colonies, it promulgated that the Western Wall is “part of the Haram al-Sharif” and, “as such, it is holy to Muslims. Moreover, it is legally the absolute property of the Muslim community.” As the Mandatory was obliged “to preserve the status quo,” “appurtenance[s] of Jewish worship” needed to be removed. The September 24 ruckus was due to Jewish action, which constituted an infraction of the status quo of the Wall. The shofar’s sounds were silenced at the Wall.

Here is the origin the “status quo” policy which Moshe Dayan adopted in 1967.

Even before the White Paper’s publication, the Muslim Supreme Council had proceeded to renovate the Wall in a transparent attempt to establish primacy.

That spurred Liberal MP Joseph Kenworthy, the Baron Strabolgi, to ask the secretary of state for the colonies on November 12 why the erecting of “masonry constructions on top of the Wailing Wall” was “being permitted... especially in view of the action taken by the authorities in Jerusalem to enforce the removal of temporary screens placed by Jewish devotees against the wall as infringing the status quo.” He continued, “Will [he] give instructions that the status quo is to be preserved and that this new construction on this ancient wall should be forbidden?”

The Mandate regime was not interested in Jewish rights. As the Bulletin reported on December 5, 1928, the day the newspaper published the text of the White Paper, based on Mizrachi UK, “Sir John Chancellor’s attitude in seeking a solution of the Wailing Wall question will be that of benevolent neutrality.” Minnesota’s American Jewish World December 7 editorial asked, “Do the British authorities invoke the “status quo” to reduce the number of tourists, that most profitable “crop” of the Holy Land? Then why conjure up that remnant of Turkish misrule to justify the shortsighted, stupid meddling of Jerusalem police?” THE SEPTEMBER-November 1928 events set off a series of incidents throughout the year. Muslim ruffians would throw stones at those who came to pray and grab headgear. They led donkeys through so that their dung could be dropped, and undertook construction projects such as opening a new entrance on the southern side or conducting dhikr ceremonies, ritualized recital of litanies, including singing, music and even dance. Jews, led by Prof. Joseph Klausner and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, established a “Pro-Western Wall Committee” to campaign for Jewish rights, while the Muslims announced a “Committee to Defend the Noble Buraq.” Eventually, all this culminated in the August 1929 riots with the loss of life, property and the abandonment of Jewish communities.

The shaw Commission of Inquiry presented its 200-page report in March 1930. It fully backed the ban on blowing the shofar that High Commissioner Chancellor had earlier decreed on September 1, 1929, when he proclaimed: “I intend to give effect to the principles laid down in the White Paper of the 19th November, 1928.” The inquiry commission specifically added, “It may be that the Jewish religious authorities have a clear and established right to bring the shofar to the Wailing Wall and to use it there as part of the ritual of their devotions, but if that be the case, it is all the more regrettable that they did not take steps to substantiate that right by the production of evidence.” The British then appointed a commission consisting of “three members who shall not be of British nationality” to consider “the question of the rights and claims of the Jews and Muslims with regard to the Wailing Wall.” Their report appeared in December 1930 and, among other prohibitions, ordered that “the Jews shall not be permitted to blow the ram’s horn (shofar) near the Wall nor cause any other disturbance to the Muslims that is avoidable,” and a Royal Order in Council published on May 19, 1931, made that absolute.

HOWEVER, ON October 2, as we noted above, an act of protest and revolt took place. Moshe Segal (1904-1985), a member of Betar and a devotee of the Revisionist ideologue Abba Ahimeir and a Chabad adherent, blew the shofar at the Wall without permission.

As he later recalled, he borrowed a tallit, removed the shofar from a stand and “I wrapped myself in the tallit. At that moment, I felt that I had created my own private domain. All around me, a foreign government prevails, ruling over the people of Israel even on their holiest day and at their holiest place, and we are not free to serve our God; but under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my Father in Heaven; here I shall do as He commands me, and no force on earth will stop me.” Until 1948, that act of defiance, despite the resulting months of imprisonment, was undertaken by members of the Jabotinsky movement – by Betar members, those of Brit HaBiryonim and the Irgun. Their shofar blasts were not only acts that “broke the law,” but, rather, they declared that the governmental authority that dared decree the blowing of a shofar as illegal was itself illegitimate.

They sounded a call of revolt. And their shofar blasts eventually turned into armed resistance that led to the collapse of the British regime. 

The writer is a research fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.