At an important conference of Conservative Judaism, which concluded at the Van-Leer Institute in Jerusalem, Dr. Kobi Cohen-Hattab presented a study he had conducted on the public struggle of the Masorati Movement in Israel
against the continuing exclusion of non-Orthodox movements from the Kotel -the Western Wall.
At the height of the Six Day War, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol invited the Minister of Religion and the leaders of the religious communities in Israel - Jews, Christians and Muslims - and read them a statement according to which responsibility for the holy places would be under their authority. The Jews were represented by the Chief Rabbinate, but it was not them, but the man who was Minister of Religious Affairs at the time, Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, who understood the significance of this move. In his memoirs, Warhaftig writes that “I immediately seized control of the running of the affairs of the Western Wall.”
Warhaftig was a Talmudic sage and held a doctorate in law, as well as being a talented politician, who represented Ha-Poel ha-Mizrahi, and later the National Religious Party, from the First until the Ninth Knesset - no less! He was a moderate person, the “Hardal” (National-Haredi) trend had not yet been invented, but this hasty move on the part of Eshkol and the quick and far-reaching interpretation given it by Warhaftig sowed the seeds which, a generation-and-a-half later, transformed what had originally been a national-cultural-religious site into a Haredi synagogue.
The destruction of the Mugrabi neighborhood - the Arab neighborhood adjacent to the Kotel - immediately after the end of the war, cleared the way for creating the great plaza next to the Kotel. Hundreds and thousands of people flowed to the Kotel during those days - religionists, secularists, Haredim; Jews from Israel and from abroad. For all of them, the Kotel served as a focal point of popular national identification.
But then, for the first time in its history, iron barricades were placed in the forward part of the plaza, close to the Kotel itself. This was the first mehitzah, the first separation between men and women, in the history of the Kotel. There had already been such attempts in the past. At the end of Turkish rule and under the British Mandate attempts had been made to separate between the sexes in the area next to the Kotel, but they failed. During most of those years when Jews had access to the Western Wall and during those years when they did not, there was never a mehitzah at the Kotel. But now a mehitzah was put up, which put aside most of the area - and the best part thereof - for the use of the men; barricades were put up to mark the entrances; and ushers were placed to assure the separation and to distribute paper kippot to those men who wished to approach the Kotel itself.
In 1968 the World Reform movement held, for the first time in its history, its annual international convention in Israel. They planned a mass festive prayer gathering in the Kotel Plaza in Jerusalem. This would have been a tremendous opportunity to strengthen ties between Israel and the leadership of world Jewry. But the religious parties were opposed. The Knesset was in an uproar. Threats were heard. The Reform leaders were astonished, and backed down. In an emotional letter to the prime minister, they wrote that, due to the fear of violence, and out of a reluctance “to endanger the peace of Jerusalem, which is more precious to us than anything else,” they had decided not to conduct the prayer at the Western Wall.
From this point on, the writing was already on the wall. The mehitzah grew higher. The temporary barricades became permanent barricades. Women who were (considered to be) immodestly dressed became the object of hostile looks, and at a later stage were even required to wrap themselves in scarves which were distributed at the entrance before they be allowed to approach the stones of the Kotel.
The escalation of more recent years is due particularly to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, known as the “Rabbi of the Kotel.” He did not invent anything, but he perfected the system: swearing-in ceremonies of the IDF became fewer and further between; an attempt was made to separate the sexes at the ceremony in which new immigrants received their identity cards; signs calling for modesty were posted in every corner; Israeli flags suddenly disappeared (and meanwhile were returned). Most of world Jewry is not Orthodox, but the rabbi of the holiest place in the world to the Jewish people is Orthodox - and not just ordinary Orthodox, but Haredi.
For more than 20 years “Women of the Wall,” an organization of Orthodox, Masorti, and Reform women, has sought to realize women’s right to pray (together) at the Kotel. They have been subject to curses, spat upon, and at times worse - but they have come devotedly every Rosh Hodesh to worship at the Wall. Recently one of their number, a member of the Masorati movement, was arrested because she wore a tallit - something that has become customary among many women in Jewish communities throughout the world.
At the end of the 1990s, on the evenings of Tisha b’Av and Shavuot, the Masorati movement sought to conduct a prayer service at the upper end of the plaza opposite the Kotel. Orthodox worshippers could not tolerate seeing men and women praying together, in one minyan. Things degenerated into violence.
The movement appealed to the High Court, seeking the right to pray in accordance with the custom of Conservative Judaism in a place so important to the Jewish people. The State knew that it was going to lose, and didn’t want a court ruling. The Secretary of the Government at that time, Isaac Herzog, was asked to make a compromise between the sides so that the movement might withdraw its appeal. The compromise attained gave the Masorati movement the right to conduct egalitarian prayers at the archaeological site found further down along the Western Wall, at “Robinson’s Arch.” From then on, for a limited number of hours every day, the majority of the Jewish people, who are not Orthodox, are able to conduct egalitarian prayers in the area of the Kotel.
True, this is not the well-known public plaza. True, there is neither shade there nor shelter from rain. True, the Masorti movement needs to provide Torah scrolls, prayer books, and to provide for an usher to assure order there - all of these services that are provided at the regular Kotel Plaza by the State, through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation - but it is nevertheless an accomplishment. Every year nearly 20,000 people - Conservative and Reform Jews from Israel and from the Diaspora - come to the place known as the “Masorti Kotel” to worship or to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, in egalitarian minyanim, near the Kotel.
The Masorti movement accepted this arrangement, although it did not renege on its right to pray at the Kotel Plaza itself. Women of the Wall did not accept this arrangement; rather, it was imposed upon them. They were prohibited from reading the Torah in the Plaza (in the Women’s Section!), so they too come to the site of Robinson’s Arch in order to complete their prayers and to read the Torah every Rosh Hodesh.
The “Traditional Kotel,” notwithstanding its limitations, is an accomplishment. But the way towards equality is still a long one. Particularly annoying is the status held by the association known as the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which in practice conducts all the matters of the Kotel, strictly enforcing the rules imposed by Rabbi Rabinowitz. This private association was established in 1988 in order to administer the project of the Western Wall tunnels and to produce educational projects, but over the course of time, through a process of creeping annexation, it gradually became a kind of owner of the Kotel as a whole. In 2004 the Legal Advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office wrote an opinion according to which, “Despite the fact that this association was set up as a private association, it possesses explicitly governmental aspects.” This opinion was accepted, and the flood gates were opened.
In 2005 the Western Wall Heritage Foundation received NIS 7 million from the Prime Minister’s Office, NIS 2 million from the Israel Lands Administration, NIS 2 million from the Transportation Ministry, NIS 2 million from the Housing Ministry, NIS 2 million from me Ministry for Internal Security, NIS 2 million from the Defense Ministry, NIS 2 million from the Tourism Ministry, and NIS 1.4 million from the “outstanding balance from a decision of the previous government” – The Grand total: NIS 20.4 million.
Do you want to know how the Orthodox establishment in Israel bolsters its status? How it succeeds in creating institutions and functions, which are seemingly for the benefit of the public but which in practice deepen the systematic exclusion of non-Orthodox trends in Judaism and the alienation of world Jewry? The Kotel is a good example. More than 20 million shekels were given to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in the course of one year, while the Masorati movement must provide all of its own equipment - Torah scrolls, Siddurs, and ushers - in order to enjoy a few hours a day in a certain section - I almost wrote “second-class section” - of the Western Wall.
We will continue to struggle for the Western Wall. Last Hanukkah the Masorati movement, along with other groups concerned with the growing extremism in Jerusalem, organized a candle lighting ceremony (mixed, Heaven forbid!) in the Kotel Plaza. Rabbi Gil Nativ, a Masorti rabbi who was among the paratroopers who freed the Kotel during the Six Day War, was honored with lighting one of the candles. When he concluded, he said that he well remembers the day the Kotel was liberated in 1967. Today, 42 years later, there is need to return the Kotel to all of the Jewish people. The Kotel needs to be liberated a second time.
Attorney Yizhar Hess is the Director-General of the Masorati Movement in Israel