Nov. 3, 2016, was Rosh Hodesh Heshvan. That day, as has been the custom for many years, a group prayer in the egalitarian space at the Kotel plaza was conducted by the Women of the Wall — a multi-denominational organization whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. They were joined by women and men carrying Torah scrolls as part of a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s failure to implement Natan Sharansky’s Solomonic plan for the Western Wall.
The Sharansky Plan, which was approved by the Israeli Knesset in January 2016, was a compromise that retained a portion of the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue and called for designation of a similar-sized section of the Kotel plaza, in the area known as Robinson’s Arch — which was subsequently renamed Ezrat Yisrael — as an egalitarian worship space. Sharansky’s compromise gave representatives of the non-Orthodox religious streams a place on the site’s governing committee. The plan was accepted by many members of Women of the Wall, by the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements, and by quite a few Modern Orthodox leaders. As Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said, “Judaism in general and the Western Wall in particular are precious and important; it is impossible to leave the future of Judaism to Orthodox Jews alone.”
Regrettably, Haredi parties within the fragile Netanyahu coalition government successfully froze the Robinson’s Arch project. For months, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements reached out to Israeli government officials demanding action, but to no avail. Left with no alternative, on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan of that year, they joined with Women of the Wall in a public display of support for the right to hold egalitarian prayer services at the Kotel. They were met with hostility and even violent assaults by haredim in the vicinity. The opponents claimed they would tolerate no change in the “ages-old” status quo.
Sadly such lamentable attitudes have been perpetuated by the current government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a coalition government that does not include the Haredi parties. Once again promises were made to the Conservative and Reform leadership and to center-left segments of the Knesset. Once again, as reported by the Times of Israel, Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana have decided “to abandon plans to implement the…Western Wall compromise.” As in 2016, the reversal of promises is premised upon bitter and often violent Haredi opposition to any “change in the status quo.” In Kahana’s words: “The Western Wall compromise has become a focus for incitement and hatred…. We’re freezing everything at the moment. We’re not touching it.”
Battles over maintaining the “status quo” at the Kotel are not new; in fact they were taking place more than 100 years ago. In 1911, when the Land of Israel was under Turkish Ottoman rule, some among the Jewish worshipers at the Kotel broke with longstanding Turkish policy by attempting to erect a temporary mechitza to separate men and women during collective prayer. Due to complaints from local Arabs, the Turkish officials reinforced what was then the “status quo,” insisting that no mechitza be permitted.
This challenge against Ottoman regulations resurfaced again in the late 1920s, under the British Mandate.
As recorded by Yosef Yoel Rivlin, an Israeli scholar and professor and an eyewitness from that time: “Early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur, we would go to the Western Wall. That was the time when it was most crowded there, for people from all the different groups would assemble…Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and Bukharians. At first there was no partition separating men and women at the Wall [even on Yom Kippur]; the early Sephardim and Perushim did not think of it. But, when the number of [Ashkenazic] hasidim grew and the group of ‘guardians of modesty’ sprang up, they erected a mechitza in the northern corner of the Wall on the day before Yom Kippur.”
In response to this violation of the “rules,” a British officer was stationed at the Wall to enforce preexisting customs. Open confrontation erupted on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1928. With a sizable number of Jewish worshipers in attendance, a mechitza was put in place, illegally, as a form of protest. This act led to Arab objections and British intervention. After they failed to persuade the Jews to take down the mechitza, the British police forcibly removed the divider. The incident inflamed Arab nationalist groups and was a factor in fomenting subsequent Arab riots centered in Jerusalem in 1929.
The no-mechitza “status quo” at the Kotel continued until the British departure in 1948. Men, women, and children of all backgrounds visited the Wall, since it served as a unifying focus for adherents of both religious and national Jewish sentiments. Going back to the days of Theodor Herzl, the Kotel symbolized the unity of the Jewish people. As a 1935 guidebook recorded: “On Tisha B’Av, a veritable Jewish migration to the Wailing Wall sets in after dark. The thousands slowly and silently pass before the everlasting stones far into the night: young and old, believer and free-thinker, the Old Yishuv from the Street of the Jews and the halutzim from the colonies and kvutzot.
“And if anywhere at all, here and at this hour you can feel that Am Yisrael is alive.”
With the Jordanian conquest of the Old City in 1948, Jewish visitation at the Kotel became prohibited. Within 48 hours of Israel’s acquisition of sovereignty over the Old City, the result of its victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967, and in time for Shavuot, a portion of the adjacent Mughrabi neighborhood was cleared away, creating additional space for worship at the Kotel and extending the accessible portion of the Wall. There was no mechitza, and 250,000 men, women, and children gathered at the Kotel as an expression of solidarity.
Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem affirmed, but, unfortunately, control of the Kotel was not assigned to the Jewish Agency, the representative body of both Israeli and world Jewry. Instead, on July 3rd, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren handed control of the Kotel to the Orthodox Ministry of Religious Services. Consequently on July 19, 1967, a mechitza was put into place at the Kotel Plaza. For the first time in its history, the Kotel became exclusively an Orthodox synagogue.
Activities that previously had not taken place at the Kotel became regarded as “status quo.” As Dr. Shulamit Magnus, a leader of Women of the Wall, said, “The Wall was liberated — for Jews who are men — in 1967, with abundant new customs created since then, but only on the men’s side. To claim that women cannot pray there as a group, with voice, Torah, tallit, tefillin, because these are innovations, ‘violations of custom,’ is absurd. Men doing any of this, or holding bar mitzvah or wedding ceremonies, is an innovation. So is the mechitza dividing men and women. Shall it be abolished on grounds of being an innovation in custom?”
The Kotel, like the State of Israel, belongs to Jews of all religious and secular views. The will of world Jewry, expressed by the World Zionist Congress and by large portions of the citizenry of the Jewish state, affirmed by Knesset, ought not to be obstructed by haredim who wish to squelch views other than their own. In devising his plan, Natan Sharansky explained, “[There is an] urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.” In his words, we need “one Western Wall for one Jewish people.”
Current Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai warned that “a coalition wanting to have a long life would be advised to learn that coalition agreements” — such as implementing the Kotel compromise — “must be honored…. As long as [the Labor Party sits] in the government, we will push for equality for all denominations.”
May we be privileged to witness the return to the Kotel’s true “status quo” as a comprehensive and inclusive symbol of Am Yisrael!