In ancient times, people looked to portents involving the heavens and earthbound events in order to try to understand the baffling world in which we live, as well as to discern the will of their Creator. In the 21st century—armed with science, sophisticated technology and mass communication—we’re much smarter than that. Instead of pondering the stars, we now expect the fall of a loose rock in an old stone wall to explain it all.
When a boulder that was part of the ancient Western Wall fell this past week, it was just a matter of gravity, the loosening most likely caused by vegetation that grows in the ancient structure, the debris that birds place into crevasses or an accumulation of moisture. But the crash of a 220-pound piece of rock was enough to set off a storm of commentary—some of it serious and some delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. All of it was designed to score points in the wars Jews fight among themselves, in addition to the one Palestinians still wage against Israel’s existence.
The Kotel is the last remnant of the retaining wall surrounding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. As such, it is more than a historical monument; it is infused with holiness for people of faith. Sadly, that has also made it a battleground on which efforts to ensure or suppress Jewish religious pluralism has played out.
The rock fell into the area separated from the main Kotel plaza and in which a relatively small area has been set aside for egalitarian prayer. A plan to expand access to the area has been blocked by those who are offended by non-Orthodox prayer services. The ensuing controversy has angered many Jews in the Diaspora.
So it wasn’t surprising that some people claimed that the rock falling was a sign of heavenly favor or disfavor, made more profound since had it fallen a day earlier on Tisha B’Av—when the area was packed with thousands of worshippers—some people almost certainly would have been badly injured or even killed. Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovich of the right-wing Jewish Home Party said the non-Orthodox might be the reason for the incident, and that these “quarrelmongers examine themselves, not the Wall.”
In response, a U.S. Reform rabbi wondered, in what was clearly intended as sarcasm, whether instead the all had “spit out a stone” in protest against the passage of the Jewish nation-state law days earlier. More thoughtfully, Alden Solovy, a Reform teacher and blogger, invoked traditional teachings about Tisha B’Av by warning that perhaps the sinat chinam—or “senseless hatred” that helped destroy Jerusalem 2,000 years ago—is now undermining the stability of the Kotel.
But as is often the case, these Jewish internecine battles can obscure the war their enemies still wage against them. While the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox bicker about who can pray at the wall and where, the Palestinians are still denying that the site has anything to do with the Jews.
As Khaled Abu Toameh reported in The Jerusalem Post, Omar Kiswani, director of the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, claimed that the loose rock was the result of Israeli archeological excavations aimed at toppling the entire plateau and destroying Muslim holy places. Yusef Natsheh, director of Islamic Archeology and Tourism on the Mount, chimed in by saying that the slab falling was clearly a “pre-planned test” carried out by the Jews in order to test the strength the walls of the mosques before destroying them.
The spokesperson for the Fatah Party that runs the Palestinian Authority also said that the rock’s fall was proof that Israel was trying to destroy the mosque. Not confining himself to conspiracy theories, Fatah’s Osama Qawasmeh, who works for P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, made it clear that the Kotel prayer areas were the property of Muslims, not the Jews arguing about them.
“We affirm that al-Aqsa Mosque and its surroundings, including what is beneath it, are purely Islamic,” Qawasmeh said. “The Jews have no right to it.”
He also called the visits to the Temple Mount by Israelis a “crime,” even though Jewish tourists are forbidden to pray at the sacred site in a futile effort to mollify the Palestinians.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. Palestinian leaders have been spewing such falsehoods, which amount to a blood libel against Jews, for a century in order to stir up hate. The recent “stabbing intifada” was set off in no small measure by Abbas’s claims that “stinking Jewish feet” were profaning Jerusalem’s holy sites. A stabbing murder of a Jew this week may well have been directly inspired by the latest P.A. lies about the Temple Mount.
So while Jews fight each other over prayer at the Kotel, Palestinians continue to seek to deny all of them the right to be there. Even the supposed moderates of Fatah seem to want not just a Jew-free West Bank, but also a Jerusalem where Jews have no rights—whether they are Orthodox or non-Orthodox.
Serious observers should know that it’s pointless for mortals to ponder whether their Creator moves around rocks, even the sacred ones of the Kotel, to send them messages. Rather, they should remember that it’s that the contemporary wars of the Jews against each other—like the battles that took place inside Jerusalem while the Romans besieged the city—that undermine the unity needed to defend the Jewish people against those who would harm them and deny them their ancient home.
Instead of using the rock as a weapon in a domestic squabble, this would be an apt moment for all Jews to stop trying to insult each other. And if it’s the only way for the message to get through, let’s say that God moved that stone in order to send them a reminder to behave themselves and understand that their enemies make no such distinctions when seeking to spill their blood.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.