The Western Wall: A Grand Distraction
This fall, the issue of who can worship in what way at the Western Wall returned to the Israeli Supreme Court.
In January, the Cabinet had approved a compromise: The area for prayer at the sacred site would be expanded southward. The new space would be available to Reform and Conservative Jews and to the multi-denominational Women of the Wall. And then, with ultra-Orthodox parties threatening to bring down the government if the compromise went into effect, the plan was frozen. So a coalition of groups wanting change revived a long-delayed lawsuit, and the first hearing was held in what will certainly be a long legal fight. Soon after, according to a report in Haaretz, the Foreign Ministry warned Israeli diplomats in America to expect protests from Reform and Conservative Jews over the Kotel (Western Wall) issue, especially during the High Holidays.
One might conclude that the Kotel dispute is equally high on the agenda of Israelis and American Jews. One would be mistaken, though. Equal rights at the Wall—for non-Orthodox Jews and for women—appear to be a top concern among liberal American Jews, but in Israel, they’re a sidebar to more pressing political issues. Even Israelis particularly concerned about separating religion and state or about changing the status of women in Judaism, or both, have told me that they see the fight over the Kotel as a distraction from issues that more directly affect people’s lives—the rabbinic courts’ control of divorce, to pick one example.
I believe they’re right. Not only that, the argument about the Wall can be a strategic mistake in the battle over more substantial questions of religious pluralism. To understand why, we need to look at the nature of holy sites, especially contested ones.
Holy sites work like parabolic mirrors. They focus energy on a single point, heating it up. The energy isn’t restricted to religious passion. From the 1920s onward, Haram al-Sharif—the Islamic name for the Temple Mount—became a rallying point for Arab opposition to Zionism, and so for Arab nationalism as well as for Islam. The imagined threat that Jews would seize Al-Aqsa (used as a name for the Haram as a whole) to rebuild the Temple was emotional shorthand for the more tangible fear of losing Palestine.
After the Israeli conquest of the Old City and the West Bank in 1967, Al-Aqsa came under Israeli rule. It became a symbol both of occupation and of future Palestinian independence. Meanwhile, the Kotel operated as a symbol of Jewish nationhood. Secular rightists spearheaded protests in the 1920s demanding an end to long-standing restrictions, maintained by the British authorities, on Jewish worship at the Wall. In 1967, the words of a battlefield announcement, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” and the iconic picture of paratroopers at the Kotel channeled national ecstasy over victory.
Here, as at holy places elsewhere in the world, there’s a pattern: Sacred space becomes much more valuable when someone else has it, or wants it. Another historical pattern is that people confuse owning a holy site with owning religious truth.
These patterns shape the fight over prayer rights at the Kotel. I’m not sure how many of the people involved believe that God hears prayers or hears them better if they’re offered at the Kotel. But I’m certain that the fight is fueled by resentment that someone else claims ownership and expresses it through controlling religious practice there—or, for those now in control, by fear that someone else will threaten their ownership by introducing new practices. Sharing the place is perceived as a sign of sharing religious legitimacy. The fight over how to pray is also fueled by the belief that the Kotel is the property of all Jews as a people—that is to say, an ethnic-national group. So who controls what becomes a matter of ethnic as well as religious belonging.
One more common trait of conflicts over holy sites: The passions don’t fade. The least bad solution is a clear, agreed-upon division, enforced by a government. The status quo balancing the claims of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and other churches to the Holy Sepulchre was anchored in a 19th-century international agreement and has been maintained by whoever has ruled Jerusalem since.
An even better solution: Expand the holy site before dividing it. That’s what Israel did in June 1967: To avoid Jewish-Muslim conflict over the Temple Mount, it expanded the prayer space. Muslims pray at the Haram, Jews at the Wall. The key weakness in the arrangement is that it’s unilaterally imposed and de facto rather than de jure.
The government’s original Kotel compromise was the right approach: Enlarge the worship area, then split it. An Orthodox foundation would continue to control the existing plaza, while the new area would be administered by a government panel including non-Orthodox representatives. Government involvement is unavoidable.
But be careful: While unavoidable for administering sacred spaces, this kind of government involvement is a bad model for dealing with the other, more important religious issues in Israel. The state religious establishment isn’t just Orthodox; it represents a narrow, hardline version of Orthodoxy and has been corrupted by power and by the divvying up of patronage. It violates the religious freedom of Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox Jews.
The last thing the Reform and Conservative movements need is to buy into this kind of state-funded, state-administered religion. They don’t need government-salaried Reform or Conservative town rabbis. They, and all the rest of us in Israel, need the government to get out of the religion business to the maximum extent possible.
The symbol of the Kotel not only concentrates far too much activist energy in the wrong spot. It also provides a very distorted reflection of the fight for religious freedom in Israel
Gershom Gorenberg lives in Jerusalem and is the author of The Unmaking of Israel.