Shulamit S. Magnus
Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Klal Yisrael at the Kotel: A National Vision on Tish’a Be’av


The ugly scenes at Robinson’s Arch, when a group of adolescent vigilantes, educated and sent by adults of the same mental, if not chronological age to disrupt a reading of Eichah by a mixed group of women and men, are a good argument for less, not more, denominationalism at the Western Wall.

The official status of the Kotel, the Western Wall, of which Robinson’s Arch is a southern extension is, “atar leumi kadosh” –“national holy site.” It is not, and should not become, a synagogue, “belonging” to any group, organization, or movement, including the Chief Rabbinate or any subgroup operating under its aegis, theirs to control in access or religious custom.

Rather, the Kotel should be administered as its official status warrants, as a site sacred to the Jewish people. All of us. Religious of this or that kind, or secular; Israeli or Diaspora Jews. “National” means all of us. Equally.

We have before us a clear and troubling example of what a denominationally divided Kotel looks and acts like: the Holy Sepulcher, over every square inch of whose space and calendar a host of Christian churches and sects compete in endless turf battles, and have for centuries.

The Holy Sepulchre, however, at least is, and has always been, a church.

The Kotel is not a synagogue. It is a retaining wall, one of several, for the Second Temple above it, destroyed on this day nearly 2,000 years ago. Over centuries, Jews sanctified it as a remnant of that sacred place of connection, pouring out there their grief at Jewish Exile, persecution, and degradation, anguished prayers for national redemption, and personal prayers, hopes, dreams. National memory and hoped-for future mingled there.

The Kotel has been appropriated, de facto, by the haredi establishment, which has imposed not only its religious practice there but huge, physical changes meant to alter the nature of the place and turn it into a haredi shrine. Thus, the Kotel authorities have installed an ever expanding and solidifying mehitsa, divider, between the men’s section, which covers three quarters of the open space (in addition to interior spaces allotted to men only), and an ever-shrinking section the Kotel authorities relegate to women. As the mehitsa has increased progressively, in height and heft, they have also erected a massive stone enclosure at the back of the women’s section, behind which, they have built a massive stone ramp leading to the men’s section; all this so men can be spared the sight and sound of women. All of which has been done without any public, national, discussion, never mind, approval.

The intent of all this is clear: to turn the Kotel de facto, into a haredi synagogue, at which the rest of us are welcome on sufferance, on haredi terms.

The Kotel deal would make this claim official, in exchange for awarding Robinson’s Arch officially to the Reform and Conservative movements as a site of egalitarian prayer, an act that would give those movements long-sought State recognition and funding. One establishment would own the Kotel; another, Robinson’s Arch. The entire “holy basin” would be turned into denominational synagogue space. Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site of singular rarity and importance– the huge boulders from the Temple which the Romans hurled down from above as they destroyed it, lie to this day where they fell—would need a platform or some other monstrosity erected in order to accommodate large numbers of worshippers without, one would hope, damaging the site. Would those who wished to come to Robinson’s Arch for its historical significance  have to dive below such a platform? And then not see and feel the open space above; not be able to experience the site for the story it tells so dramatically?

Forgotten in the current brouhaha about the Kotel is the revolutionary act, in December, 1988, that began any discussion about the site and practice there: prayer by Jewish women of all streams of Judaism and none—a group as microcosmic of our people as could be, including the 52% that is female. We went in solidarity as Jewish women; denominational affiliations and citizenship were irrelevant. We went to pray together as women in Jewish sacred space. That was plenty; that was everything; that was all that mattered.

To some of us, including all but one of the founders of all this, of whom I am one, that is still the case.

And our vision—that what mattered was what we shared, not what divided us—is extremely relevant in the current moment.

The scenes of attempted domination, control, and disrespect that we are now seeing at Robinson’s Arch are the result of the State abdicating its responsibility to administer the Kotel, and all the other sites that share its status– including, I would note, Meron– as that status warrants: as “atarim leumiim kedoshim” — “national holy sites.”

Places at which all Jews are welcome, equally, and no sector owns anything, not least, the right to exclude anyone, or to coerce any type of worship. Where Jews can practice whatever form of Jewish worship they wish– or none. Simply reveling in the site for what it is and has meant in Jewish history should also be an option. Time sharing and other creative thinking—with the klal ever before us and Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, from all walks of Jewish life, half of them, women, setting policy there– can make this vision real.

Reclaiming these sites as fully public and national would mean the huge win that the Conservative/ Masorti and Reform establishments seek and that many argue Diaspora relations require, without importing and imposing on Israel divisive and unfruitful denominationalism and terrible public policy. It would assure haredi Jews the ability to pray there in their custom not as an exclusive privilege but as a right shared equally with all other Jews.

The last thing we need is a Jewish version of the Holy Sepulcher.

There are other far better ways to go that serve us all, religious of whatever persuasion and secular; Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike.

This should be the lesson and the vision of this tish’a be’av: a State that acts to preserve, protect, and promote truly national space, for all of Israel—taking that term in its broadest meaning– at our people’s holy sites.


About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and read Torah there in the first such service, in 1988. She is first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel, using scrolls held there. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, and the Jerusalem Post.