‘Fences Are Insulting’: Israel’s Government Once Opposed Gender Segregation at the Western Wall

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A member of the liberal Jewish religious movement 'Women of the Wall' blows the shofar at the Western Wall, in the old city of Jerusalem, in 2018.
A member of the liberal Jewish religious movement 'Women of the Wall' blows the shofar at the Western Wall, in the old city of Jerusalem, 2018.Credit: Hadas Frosch / Flash 90

Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was furious when he heard that men and women were being separated at the Western Wall by a mehitza (a traditional Jewish partition) after the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six-Day War.

“Fences, mehitzas and enclosures – these are fundamentally insulting and depressing things,” he told cabinet members at a meeting on August 13, 1967, to discuss a host of sensitive issues that continue to dog Israel to this day.

“It’s a sacred, historic place, and it’s also sacred to secular Jews,” Eshkol told fellow cabinet members. “It’s a place to which different Jews and non-Jews will come, and it would be better that we act respectfully there,” he said.

Health Minister Yisrael Barzilai concurred. “Regretfully, they are behaving as if it belonged to only one section,” he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. “Of course it belongs to the religious, but also to the nonreligious … albeit in a different manner, but to the same extent,” he added.

He added that, personally, he had a “different relationship with the Western Wall,” but said he still perceived it as being dear to him. “And I am not prepared to give up on it, and I want to approach it in the way I know how, without hurting others,” he said.

The Western Wall Plaza in July 1967, just prior to the holy site being divided into prayer sections for men and women. Credit: David Eldan / GPO

Barzilai slammed the Haredim for trying to create facts on the ground. “I don’t understand why we assign the ultra-Orthodox a religious monopoly on the issue and give the site a purely religious nature,” he said. “We have to grant the Western Wall its full status and place among the people, with all that is written about it. … The Western Wall as a whole is a historic, national site that everyone visits, not a synagogue.”

He warned that limiting freedom of religion at the site via partitions and restrictions was liable to spark criticism within the Jewish world. “Now Jews from all over the world are coming, from different communities,” Barzilai said. “They didn’t pray to find such a reality at the Western Wall.”

The Israel State Archives released the minutes of the meeting last Thursday, on the fast day marking the 17th of Tamuz and three weeks ahead of the Fast of the 9th of Av – two of the four fasts commemorating the destruction of the holy temples in Jerusalem.

Ministers also discussed the status of Temple Mount and the Judaization of East Jerusalem at that cabinet meeting some 53 years ago.

Tourism Minister Moshe Kol backed his colleagues, noting that he had visited the holy site dozens of times during the British Mandate era and there had never been a divider there. However, he said, when he had visited recently, he was surprised to discover “that the place had turned into a synagogue with a mehitza running down the entire plaza – something that had never been there.”

Worshippers at the Western Wall during Passover 1968, after the prayer space at the wall had been divided into separate areas for men and women. Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Like Eshkol, he too described the situation as “depressing,” adding about the divider: “I don’t understand why this is necessary. The most religious Jews always came to the Western Wall and never demanded it.”

Kol was right when he noted that the partition dividing male and female worshippers was a new development: the British authorities had never allowed Jews to place a mehitza at the site while the country was British Mandatory Palestine between 1920-1948. A particularly memorable incident happened on Yom Kippur on September 24, 1928, when police officers – responding to complaints by Arab worshippers – violently removed a mehitza that Jewish worshippers had erected.

Historic photographs from the time show Jewish women praying at the Western Wall next to men, without any mehitza. However, other photographs from the late 19th century and early 20th century do show dividers at the site.

At the 1967 cabinet meeting, Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir also called the mehitza “a disgrace,” while Justice Minister Ya’akov Shimshon said that whoever had placed it there had violated the law. “Fifteen other Jews can come and take this mehitza and throw it away,” he said. “The others have the same legal authority as these do.”

And what did Religious Services Minister Zerach Warhaftig have to say about the matter? “Ultimately, the debate is more ideological than technical-administrative,” he said. “Is the Western Wall a holy place or purely a historical site?”

Eshkol responded: “I don’t mind if it’s a holy place, but it’s fitting that such holy places, which are universal, be orderly and attractive.”

The prime minister concluded the meeting by saying that Israel may have rushed to open up the Western Wall to the public immediately after taking East Jerusalem from Jordan in the war. It was likely, he noted, that a deeper discussion on the nature of the site’s character should have taken place before it opened.

“It’s probably a mistake that we didn’t wait 2000 years and three months to open the place to the general public,” he said. “It’s likely that we should have kept the place closed for three additional months, and in the interim established and arranged everything there according to plans,” he added.

The discussion ended without a decision. This sensitive issue was passed on to a “committee” and has never dropped off the agenda since.

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