Elevate Robinson’s Arch – but not physically

Our mantra should be: Elevate “the Robinson’s Arch area” spiritually and popularly; just don’t elevate it physically.

Phptographers Women Western Wall 395 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Phptographers Women Western Wall 395
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 physically.
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 herb.
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 day.
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 movement analogies.
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 unnecessary uniformity.
We would then risk making that part of the Wall a shrine to a false god (or goddess) of totalitarian equality.
Therefore, I beg Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: Accept this elegant compromise.
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.