Israel's Western Wall Crisis: Why Jews Are Fighting With Each Other Over the Jewish Holy Site, Explained

A primer on the 50-year war that has divided Diaspora Jewry and Israel's religious hegemony

Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall during Passover, April 13, 2017.
Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall during Passover, April 13, 2017. AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

It’s the second holiest site in Judaism. Nearly every tourist coming to Israel visits it. Israeli army units swear their allegiance in front of it. And lately, it seems that Israelis and U.S. Jews can’t stop fighting about how Jews can pray there. So what’s all the fuss about?

What is the Western Wall?

The Western Wall was never part of the Temple Mount, where the ancient holy places of worship for Jews stood. It is believed to be a remnant of the retaining wall that supported the esplanade built by King Herod in the first century B.C.E., holding up his reconstruction of the Second Temple.

But ever since the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem in 1516 and non-Muslims were forbidden from ascending to the Temple Mount itself, the Wall became the world’s foremost destination for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer.

Who made the controversial decisions about who can pray at the Wall?

Until 1967, there were no rules regarding worship. For the Jews who were able to access the site, any gender separation was strictly voluntary. But 50 years ago, in 1967, Israel regained control of the Old City – and the Wall – during the Six-Day War.

As soon as the Western Wall was captured, the houses in front of it were demolished and the Western Wall Plaza was created to accommodate the flood of worshippers. The Chief Rabbinate immediately launched a political battle for control of the site. They were worried that if the site was managed by the Religious Services Ministry or the National Parks Authority, it would be treated as a tourist and archaeological attraction, not as a synagogue.

The Rabbinate won that fight. Ever since, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has maintained the site under the rules of an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, with a presiding rabbi who makes sure that all prayer there conforms to Orthodox rules. This means separating men and women with a high fence – and forbidding women to pray in loud voices with accessories restricted to men in Orthodox Judaism, such as kippot, tallitot [prayer shawls] and a Torah scroll.

Two pictures showing the evolution of the dividing wall between the male and female sections as worshipers visit the Western Wall in 1967 (left) and 2017.
STAFF/REUTERS

When did the trouble start?

From the very beginning, Reform and Conservative Jews who wanted to pray together at the Wall were unhappy with the restrictions – but little was done to challenge the rules. Then, in 1988, a group of English-speaking women from the United States, Canada and England came to Israel to attend the first International Jewish Feminist Conference. When the group went to the Western Wall and tried to read from the Torah as a group in the women’s section, they were attacked by angry ultra-Orthodox bystanders. Israeli feminists who witnessed the incident, including both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, committed to praying at the Wall on the eve of every new month in the Jewish calendar with a Torah, tefillin [phylacteries] and tallitot. The group Women of the Wall was born.

And so began an endless procession – and much foot-dragging – of court cases, appeals, special commissions, fiery Knesset debates over the issue of Western Wall prayer, restricting and outlawing at various junctures women’s right to pray as they choose.

Wasn’t there a compromise?

In 2003, an attempt was made by Israel’s Supreme Court to resolve the ongoing crisis triggered by the Women of the Wall and complaints from non-Orthodox movements by permitting women’s and mixed-gender prayer at Robinson’s Arch – an archaeological park situated at the southern end of the Wall. It was completely separate from the main Western Wall Plaza, with a separate entrance from the main plaza and only accessible when the archaeological park was open. The space has been a popular location for Reform and Conservative Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, and a later compromise leaves it accessible beyond the park’s opening hours.

Still, the Robinson’s Arch solution proved unsuccessful. No one has been satisfied with the limited access to the Wall that Robinson’s Arch provides and the numerous limitations imposed by the archaeological park, which lacks the visibility and accessibility of the main prayer plazas.

When did U.S. Jews become so upset about it and get involved in the fight?

In 2009, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation demanded that the police stop Women of the Wall’s prayer service and a young Israeli medical student, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested, questioned and charged with illegally wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. The next year, Anat Hoffman – one of the group’s founders and today the leader of the organization – was arrested for carrying a Torah to the site. After being questioned for five hours, Hoffman was released from police custody and banned from the Wall for 30 days.

Shocked by the images of praying women being dragged from the Kotel, the struggle of the Women of the Wall galvanized women, and men, in Reform and Conservative congregations overseas. They were already unhappy with their inability to worship at the Wall like they do in their own synagogues, and the actions of the Israel Police infuriated them.

Because so many more Diaspora Jews are affiliated with non-Orthodox movements than Israeli Jews – particularly in the United States – the issue has resonated in overseas Jewish communities to a greater extent than it has in Israel. Beginning in 2010-2011, solidarity events for Women of the Wall became widespread in Reform and Conservative communities, and many U.S. congregations make a point of joining Women of the Wall when they visit Israel.

Jewish men praying at the Western Wall during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 24, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP

The group itself has become institutionally tied to the Reform movement. Hoffman is both the executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and director of Women of the Wall.

Why are Diaspora Jews so furious at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Under pressure from both sides – the U.S. Jewish leadership abroad and ultra-Orthodox political parties in his government at home – in 2012 Netanyahu charged Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky with exploring a compromise instead of having one dictated by the courts (whom Women of the Wall, backed by the Diaspora Jewish movements, continued to turn to in their struggle). Later, he brought then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit into the process to negotiate with all of the sides and come up with a plan.

After an agonizingly protracted four-year process, on January 31, 2016, the Israeli government approved a plan it was believed everyone could live with.

There would be a new, expanded egalitarian prayer space in the Robinson’s Arch area, with visible, easy access points that would put their dignity and status on an equal footing with the ultra-Orthodox spaces. Netanyahu hailed the decision as a “fair and creative solution,” and the Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox movements celebrated.

But their celebrations were premature: Implementation of the plan has been stymied by the ultra-Orthodox parties on whom Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends.

And the ultra-Orthodox parties weren’t only satisfied with delaying the plan - they were concerned as long as it was on the books, the courts would have grounds to force the government’s hand and make the egalitarian space happen.

That’s when, in a surprise move on June 25, the ultra-Orthodox parties pressured Netanyahu’s government into nixing the plan altogether. That move has infuriated top American Jewish leaders, who feel Netanyahu has slapped them in the face. The top executive of the Jewish Agency – the main vehicle of support by Diaspora Jews for Israel – has said it will now “reevaluate its relationship with the Israeli government.”