As pressures mount upon Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, one haredi demand is to legislate against any type of egalitarian prayer anywhere near the Kotel, including at Robinson’s Arch.
Acceding to this demand would betray the promise of an egalitarian option for worship accessed by tens of thousands of Diaspora and Israeli Jews each year, a reversal of decades of the status quo.
Notably, each Rosh Chodesh for many years, it has been a custom for women to gather in group prayer in the Women’s Section of the main Kotel Plaza. This monthly service is conducted by the Women of the Wall — a multi-denominational organization whose goal is to uphold the right of women to pray at this sacred site, a site that was open to both men and women prior to Israeli statehood.
Additionally, for the past several decades, egalitarian prayer — notably for b’not mitzvah ceremonies and for Holy Day celebrations — has been organized by the Masorti movement in the area of the Kotel, but apart from the main plaza, known as Robinson’s Arch. Many thousands of Jews from around Israel and the world come to pray there together each year.
Seeking a resolution of the quest for pluralism at the Kotel, Natan Sharansky, as head of the Jewish Agency, crafted a “Solomonic” plan that was approved by the Israeli Knesset in January 2016. The plan was a compromise; for the first time, it would codify the main Kotel Plaza as an Orthodox synagogue and called for the designation of a similar-size section in an upgraded Robinson’s Arch area, to be renamed “Ezrat Yisrael,” to serve as an egalitarian worship space. Sharansky’s compromise also 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 prominent Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin noted, “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 of 2016-17 successfully froze the Robinson’s Arch project. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, along with leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America reached out to Israeli government officials demanding action, but to no avail. The opponents claimed they would tolerate no change in what was incorrectly labeled an “ages-old” status quo.
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. Israeli scholar and professor Yosef Yoel Rivlin, an eyewitness from that time, recorded: “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. 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 Kotel to enforce preexisting customs, i.e., no mechitza. In 1928, open confrontation erupted on the eve of Yom Kippur. 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 age-old no-mechitza “status quo” at the Kotel continued until the British departure in 1948. Men, women, and children of all backgrounds together visited the Western Wall and offered individual prayers. The Kotel 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. The aspiration for Jewish sovereignty was for a state of the Jewish people, not a state solely for haredi Judaism. 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.”
Following the Jordanian conquest of the Old City in 1948 and for the next 19 years, all Jewish visitation at the Kotel was prohibited. Within 48 hours of Israel’s acquisition of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City as a 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 more than 200,000 men, women, and children gathered at the Kotel as an expression of national solidarity.
Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem was 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 3, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren handed control of the Kotel to the Orthodox Ministry of Religious Services. On July 19, 1967, a mechitza was put in place at the Kotel Plaza. For the first time in its history, the Kotel was (unofficially) transformed exclusively into 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.”
The Kotel, like the State of Israel, belongs to Jews of all religious and secular views throughout the globe. The will of world Jewry, expressed by the World Zionist Congress and by large portions of the citizenry of the Jewish state, ought not to be obstructed by the militant minority of haredim who wish to suppress views other than their own. In devising his plan, Natan Sharansky explained that 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.”
Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu: Do not surrender to the divisive demands of haredi parties entering into your coalition government. As prime minister, you have a responsibility to serve the needs of the entire Jewish people.
The Kotel “status quo” must be sustained as a comprehensive and inclusive symbol of Am Yisrael!