For one brief moment, the Western Wall was a place for moderation and common sense. A young Israel Defense Forces rabbi, Yisrael Ariel − who would go on to become a prominent member of the racist party Kach and founder of the Temple Institute − was ordered to guard the entrance to the Temple Mount immediately after its capture by the IDF on the morning of June 7, 1967. He was convinced that within a few minutes, demolition experts with explosives would obliterate the Dome of the Rock and clear the ground for the construction of the Third Temple.
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It was Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, so often accused of having hubris, who first came to his senses on that day: After only four hours, he ordered the removal of the Israeli flag and of the Paratroopers from the Mount. It was a decision that emphasized Israeli sovereignty and the constraints that a self-confident state imposes on its own actions. Ever since, the messianic right has accused the late Dayan of fear and of feelings of inferiority toward Islam, but the minister was simply fulfilling Zionist destiny: building a new Jewish society connected to its ancient roots − not rebuilding an ancient temple and a priestly nation.
On that day, when Israel’s borders were burst and blurred, the lines of its identity were laid down. The giant supporting wall planned by Herod around the Temple compound became a barrier to an orgy of fundamentalism. The state willingly relinquished the Temple Mount, establishing the Western Wall as both its starting point and its ultimate goal. But wisdom and humility did not prevail for more than three days. That’s when Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek demanded the eviction of the 650 destitute residents of the nearby Mugrabi Quarter and the destruction of their mean hovels in a matter of hours, to make way for construction of the broad Western Wall Plaza.
Even before the site was transferred to the management of the Religious Affairs Ministry and to Orthodox jurisdiction, the hasty expulsion of 135 families add another, almost forgotten, meaning to the Wall of Tears. A site that had never been considered to possess extra holiness and that had been used for centuries in Byzantine and early Muslim Jerusalem as the municipal dump was transformed into a landfillof political, financial, nationalist and religious passions.
Everyone wanted their Kotel. It became a wall of military ceremonies and mythology, especially for the Paratroopers, even though the reserve brigade of Colonel Motta Gur had arrived late to the fight for Jerusalem, needlessly stumbled into the bloody battle of Ammunition Hill and finally snatched glory by rushing, unopposed, into the Old City. A wall of real estate, as Jewish millionaires from the Diaspora funded yeshivas, luxury apartments, swanky offices and kitschy memorials towering over the plaza. A wall of Orthodox hegemony − pushing women into less than 20 percent of the space, trying to segregate the entire area and forcing other religious streams to make do with a second-rate Kotel around the corner. A wall of ignorance blocking any meaningful archaeological research.
A wall of money – of budgets, donations and alms-giving, salted away behind the scenes by a small circle of functionaries and hangers-on. A wall of politics − “the bedrock of our existence” as Benjamin Netanyahu called it, a backdrop for primaries and election campaigns and a destination for heads of state, arriving for a few minutes in a sterile bubble of security.
Those who consider themselves “normal” Israelis long ago convinced themselves that the Wall has no meaning to them. Enlightened parts of society treat it as a laughable load of stones. They can’t understand why a group of liberal feminists insist on returning there, wrapped in prayer shawls, defying chair- and stink bomb-throwing Haredim, getting arrested, and struggling for the right to pray by the Wall as equals. The easiest excuse is that they are mainly Americans. They will either return to New York or be swallowed up by Israeli apathy. Their obstinacy to perform an archaic and primitive ritual frustrates secular Israelis. We have much more urgent matters to deal with. What they tend to disregard is that the Women of the Wall provide a reminder that we cannot afford to give up the core of Israel’s sovereignty to the ultra-Orthodox and the messianists.
Jerusalem District Judge Moshe Sobel also reminded us of that last month when he ruled that the “local custom” observed at the site should “be interpreted in a pluralistic, secular and national way.” Sobel, a religious man himself, didn’t just award the enlightened public with a symbolic victory over segregationist Haredim: He set out the responsibility to come up with a pluralistic, secular and national interpretation to a symbol that was long ago hijacked and taken over by the religious establishment. We cannot ignore the challenge of the Women of the Wall, duck our responsibility to articulate a modern Israeli narrative for the embarrassing remnant of the last failed Jewish sovereign state in the ancient Land of Israel.
Someone perhaps thought that we could hand the Kotel over to the religious and they would make do with it and pray in silence. But for a while now, it has been clear that ever-widening circles are no longer content with seeing the Wall as the limit of their ambitions, but want to use it as a stepping-stone to the rebuilt temple. That, we will not be able to ignore.