iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Yizhar Hess

GET UPDATES FROM Yizhar Hess
 

Was the Kotel Liberated?

Posted: 10/25/2012 10:54 am

In December 1928, the British Mandate government outlawed the blowing of the shofar next to the Western Wall (Kotel) following Arab complaints that it was an offense to the sanctity of Islam. Rabbi Kook, then the chief rabbi of Palestine, reacted immediately. He sent an urgent letter to the British High Commissioner, calling the British edict "an affront to religious freedom and conscience."

Jews never accepted the British edict. Every Yom Kippur, they found a volunteer to sound the shofar. In 1930, at the close of Yom Kippur, Beitar member Moshe Segal, who had concealed a shofar under his tallit, sounded a tekiyah g'dola (a long blast of the shofar) as the fast ended. British police arrested him and dragged him to the Kishleh (the Old City of Jerusalem's main police station, then and now).

A few days ago, and 82 years later, on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, on the renovated grand plaza of the Western Wall -- under Israeli sovereignty since 1967 and freed of the yoke of foreign rule -- police dragged several women into custody for allegedly disturbing the sanctity of the holy site. One of them had led a group of Hadassah women in song and prayer while wrapped in a tallit. Apparently, the authorities thought her chanting of the Shema to be too loud. The Shema prayer is the most central in all of Judaism and its words are ones we are all taught to sing with passion and strength.

Two other women were detained by police the next day for violating the "customary practices" of the site by wearing a tallit. They did not pray in the very spacious part of the Western Wall plaza allotted to the men, but in the smaller area designated for women. All three women are members of "Women of the Wall," an Israeli organization of women from all streams of Judaism who have been gathering together every Rosh Hodesh (first of the month) for over 20 years for one purpose only: to exercise their right to pray at the Western Wall.

From the point of view of most Jews in the world, Conservative and Reform Jews, a woman wrapped in a tallit is not unusual; it is Judaism. But of all places, here in the State of Israel, the Jewish state, women are hauled off by police for performing a Jewish ritual. And irony of ironies, the police station was the very same one to which British authorities took Moshe Segal in 1930.

Photographs from the first half of the 20th century show that before the Western Wall was under Israeli sovereignty, men and women prayed there standing together side by side. The area around the Wall was narrow and humble, but it belonged to everyone. My grandmother, Naomi-Zissel, who lived in the Old City as a child, told me of those days.

Following the Six Day War, administration of the Western Wall site was given to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the early years, a broader sense of community prevailed. If you look at photos of the plaza from the 1970s and compare them to contemporary ones, you can see that the barrier separating men and women has grown higher. Starting in the 1980s, women began to receive nasty looks if they were dressed "immodestly," and have even been obligated to wrap themselves in ragged scarves before being allowed to approach the stones of the Wall.

We must now admit to ourselves what has befallen us. The Western Wall was liberated, yet free religious access has been obliterated. The Wall has been captured lock, stock and barrel, hijacked by a group of extremists who represent a minority among the Jewish people, a minority in Israel as well as around the world. And there is also a High Commissioner, the "Rabbi" of the Western Wall, who has been free to institute greater stringencies and prohibitions, and raise the barriers separating men from women, all according to his will. Sadly, the government and the Israeli police, yielding to the political pressure of the ultra-Orthodox, enforce his directives.

In the ongoing process of segregation, the Western Wall has been transformed from a treasured national symbol to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Hadassah women can build hospitals in Israel, but they cannot pray or sing at this holy site. The arrest carried out by the police symbolizes to Diaspora Jewry how far the State of Israel has distanced itself from them. Projects such as Birthright and Masa attempt to educate Jewish youth from around the world that Israel is also their country, but this latest folly makes this all the more difficult. How sad. The State of Israel is the only democracy in the world where Jews do not enjoy full religious freedoms.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Anat Hoffman is confronted by Israeli police at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • Anat Hoffman arrested at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • Anat Hoffman arrested at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal/Women of the Wall)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> sing and pray at the Western Wall in July 2010. After taking the Torah out of a duffel bag, a woman, Anat Hoffman, was arrested with much resistance and conflict by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • In July 2010, a Torah scroll is ripped from the hands of Anat Hoffman, a leader of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall prayer group</a>. Hoffman was then arrested with much resistance and conflict by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Israeli women of the Women of the Wall group pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • A Jewish man wearing tefillin, a leather strapped box containing Torah scripture, prays in solidarity with the women of the Women of the Wall group, not pictured, as they pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man tries to pray louder than the Israeli women of the Women of the Wall group in an attempt to drown them out, as they pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Since its founding in 1989, Women of the Wall has fought a legal battle asserting a right to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. The group has included women reading from the Torah and wearing prayer accessories that in Orthodox Judaism are used only by men. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

  • Tammy Gottlieb holds the torah at the entrance of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011 while the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray, sing and dance</a> on the women's side. Women are not allowed to hold a torah at the Western Wall, so a volunteer holds it outside the premises every service. Gottlieb has been attending services and prayer with Women of the Wall for one year, and has volunteered to stand outside with the torah two or three times. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The Women of the Wall <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">pray in the back-end of the Western Wall</a> on Feb. 2, 2011 to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month of Adar I. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray</a> in the back-end of the Western Wall to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011. Kotel Police stand near-by incase of an attack against the women or if the women bring out a torah scroll. Among many things, it is against the law for women to read or hold a torah at the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall pray and dance</a> in the back-end of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. Today was the first time the group of women danced in front of the Western Wall. Dancing, loud prayer and singing on the woman's side is looked down upon and often will be broken up by Kotel Police. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • IDF soldiers and Kotel Police follow the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> as they walk out of the Western Wall praying area on Feb. 2, 2011. One Orthodox Haredi man yelled out in anger at the woman. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack, Anat Hoffman and other members and participants of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall walk out</a> of the Western Wall praying area. on Feb. 2, 2011 The group is heavily escorted by IDF soldiers and Kotel Police. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall hold a services</a> to celebrate the Jewish month of Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011 at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. The service is held here because it is illegal for women to hold or read the torah at the actual Western Wall praying area. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack, left, Sarah Chandler, 31, center, and various members of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall hold services</a> at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • A member of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall</a> walks around the outside service with the torah on Feb. 2, 2011, the first day of Adar I, while members lean in to kiss the torah. This type of activity is forbidden for women at the actual Western Wall, so the women hold service in the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Cheryl Birkner-Mack and another member of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall </a> undress and unroll the torah at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall to celebrate the first day of the Jewish month Adar I on Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • A woman wearing <em><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefillin" target="_hplink">tefillin</a></em> and reading a prayer book stands in the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb. 2, 2011. Women are not allowed to wear tefillin at the Western Wall, so <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">they hold services</a> just outside the gates. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356"> Women of the Wall</a> close services at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall on Feb 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

  • Conservative Rabbi Mijael Even David kisses his prayer book during a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zachary-a-bennett/women-of-the-wall-gather-_b_818822.html#235356">Women of the Wall service</a> on Feb. 2, 2011 at the Ophel Archeological Park at the southern tip of the Western Wall. More men are starting to show up to services with the women to show their support and solidarity and to simply attend. (Photo credit: Zachary A. Bennett)

 
FOLLOW RELIGION