Jews have prayed at the Western Wall (Kotel) for 2,000 years, but today’s generation has to realize how hard it was to do so. Its recapture in the 1967 Six-Day War is a great miracle that should never be taken for granted.
The Kotel is 1,600 feet long. Only 160 feet of it are exposed, comprising the Western Wall Plaza. Most of it is underground.
The Kotel Katan (the “little Wall”), which is located in the so-called Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, has also been dedicated to prayer over the centuries. Both have been desecrated by Arabs who simultaneously claim them as their own holy sites.
Since 1967, prayer at the Western Wall has been administered by Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry, which erected a partition in accordance with halachah (Jewish law) to separate men and women, as is done in Orthodox synagogues.
This ministry was established in 1949 by David Ben-Gurion. It has always followed the principles and practices established by the Orthodox. Among these is the separation of men and women during prayer.
Unlike in the United States, where the Conservative and Reform movements comprise 80 percent of Jewry, in Israel, Orthodox and traditional Jews make up more than 50 percent; 42 percent consider themselves secular; and the remaining 8 percent are Conservative and Reform.
The Religious Affairs Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate have been in control of Jewish dietary laws, conversions, marriage and divorce, synagogues and burials since the founding of the State of Israel, and it should remain that way.
As in America, the “woke” and “cancel culture” groups have set their sights on prayer at the Western Wall. They are trying desperately to overturn and undo the status quo. Their efforts have already resulted in riots and violence.
There is no reason to change the status quo, however, which has worked reasonably well for 54 years. The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently “shelved” the creation of a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall. If the plan were to be implemented , riots would certainly ensue, and the ruling coalition would be greeted by a no-confidence vote.
The history of the Western Wall is in order. In 361 C.E., Jews were allowed to settle in Jerusalem. By 614, there were enough Jews there to be able to stage a revolt against the Byzantines.
Unfortunately, all were either massacred or fled. In 638, Jews returned to Jerusalem after it was conquered by Arabs. The Western Wall once again became a sought-after place of worship by religious Jews.
In 1099, the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem and slaughtered most of its Jewish inhabitants. In 1141, Yehudah Halevi visited the Western Wall.
In 1165, Maimonides visited the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. In 1173, Benjamin of Tudela visited it and wrote, “In front of this place is the Western Wall, which is one of the walls of the Holy of Holies.”
On Oct. 2, 1187, Saladin conquered Jerusalem. Jews once again began to settle there. In 1267, Nachmanides visited Jerusalem. He did not find many Jewish families there at that time.
On Jan. 14, 1546, a destructive earthquake occurred in Jerusalem. According to Prof. Dan Bahat, the earthquake actually determined the location where generations of Jews have been praying ever since, until the plaza was expanded in 1967.
The earthquake tore down a row of structures built and propped up by the Western Wall. The clearing of ruins expanded the small area previously used for prayers.
Although the Arabs today claim the Western Wall as theirs and part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, it’s clear historically that they’ve never held it in high regard. As a matter of fact, Arabs have desecrated it for two millennia, because they fully understood its significance to the Jewish people.
In 1996, PLO chief Yasser Arafat caused a riot in which 25 Israeli soldiers were killed, after a new passageway out of the Western Wall tunnel was opened. He claimed that both were part of Al-Aqsa. This is a blatant falsehood.
In 1929, the issue of prayer at the Western Wall came to a head, with Arab riots that year resulting in the murder of 67 Jews in Hebron and 45 in Jerusalem. That year, Joseph Klausner established the “Pro-Wailing Wall Committee,“ to formalize the right to Jewish worship at the Kotel. The desire to create a mechitzah, a partition separating men and women, was part of its efforts.
It’s a miracle that, after 2,000 years, Jews can pray at the Western Wall unimpeded. The status quo must be maintained at the site, and Jewish law must always be the basis for prayer there.
Dr. Joseph Frager is a lifelong activist and physician. He is chairman of Israel advocacy for the Rabbinical Alliance of America, chairman of the executive committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, and executive vice president of the Israel Heritage Foundation.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.