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The Western Wall: From Ancient Stones and Anti-Jewish Discrimination to Modern Symbol

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avatar by Chaim Lax

Opinion

A small number of Jewish worshipers pray during the priestly blessing, a traditional prayer which usually attracts thousands of worshipers at the Western Wall on the holiday of Passover during 2020, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 12, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

When reporting on the various religious sites that inhabit the Holy City of Jerusalem, the international media will occasionally erroneously refer to the Western Wall (known in Hebrew as the Kotel) as “the holiest site in Judaism.”

In the past, HonestReporting has called out these news organizations for this error (see here, here, and here), pointing out that the holiest site for the Jewish people is actually the neighboring Temple Mount.

If the Temple Mount is the holiest site for the Jewish people, why is there continual confusion about the Western Wall? And if it isn’t the holiest site in Judaism, what is the significance of the Kotel today?

In this piece, we will take a look at both the history of the Western Wall as well as the important role that it plays in modern Judaism

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The Western Wall: From the Romans to the Ottomans

In the year 20 BCE, King Herod, the ruler of Judea, undertook a bold archaeological initiative: The expansion of the Temple Mount.

By leveling a hill on the northwest side of the compound and filling up part of the surrounding valley, King Herod effectively doubled the size of the Temple Mount, turning it from a modest place of worship to a magnificent feat of architecture.

As part of these renovations, the Temple Mount was surrounded on four sides by retaining walls.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, the western wall of the Temple, as well as the southern, eastern and western retaining walls were left standing. The Temple’s western wall was destroyed sometime prior to the seventh century.

Following the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), the Romans (and later the Byzantines) forbade Jews from entering the city of Jerusalem. During this time, Jews continued to pray on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the Temple Mount, and by the southern and eastern retaining walls, which were considered to be on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Additionally, Jews were allowed to ascend to the Temple Mount once a year on Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destroyed Jewish temples.

Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century, the Jews were allowed to return to their holy city and began to pray at the western retaining wall of the mount (not to be confused with the destroyed western wall of the Temple). This wall is the Western Wall that we know today.

Beginning in the 10th century, there are a number of historical accounts of Jews praying at the Western Wall. In addition, there is evidence of a synagogue, known as the “Cave,” that was built alongside the Wall and was one of the main houses of worship for the Jews of Jerusalem until it was destroyed by Crusaders at the end of the 11th century.

During the era of Muslim rule between the 7th and 16th centuries, there were intermittent periods when Jews were able to enter Jerusalem and pray at the Western Wall, and periods when Jews were forbidden from entering the holy city.

In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent gained control of Jerusalem. Following this conquest, Suleiman rebuilt the walls of the Old City and restored the Dome of the Rock.

Additionally, Suleiman welcomed the return of Jews to Jerusalem and recognized the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall.

Following a catastrophic earthquake in 1546, Suleiman cleared the rubble of collapsed homes away from the area closest to the Wall and established a small open area (approximately four meters wide and 28 meters long) for Jews to pray.

Prior to the establishment of this prayer area, Jews had prayed along the entirety of the Western Wall, which extended deep into the Muslim Quarter.

Aside from the easing of access to the Western Wall, three other reasons that the Wall became a popular prayer site were that the southern and eastern retaining walls of the Temple Mount were incorporated into the newly rebuilt walls of the Old City, the growth in the population of the Jewish quarter (which is located close to the Western Wall) and the proximity of the Western Wall to the site of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount.

By the 16th century, for various religious and political reasons, Jews had stopped ascending the Temple Mount. Therefore, in lieu of praying at the holiest site in Judaism, the next best thing was to pray at the site closest to it, which was the Western Wall.

During the 17th century, Jewish prayer at the Wall evolved from individual to communal worship.

Even though Suleiman the Magnificent had granted Jerusalem’s Jews the right to pray at the Western Wall and had expanded the area for prayer, the Ottoman Empire still restricted the full gamut of Jewish practices at the Wall.

Aside from restrictions on the use of Jewish ritual objects, Jews were also forbidden from bringing chairs or benches to the Western Wall. Even though the Ottoman government made a number of decrees against the bringing of chairs and benches (the last was in 1911), Jews were able to circumvent these rules by bribing local officials to look the other way when these items were brought.

As well, during the Ottoman period and after, Jews praying at the Western Wall were subject to abuse from Arabs living in the Mughrabi quarter, which abutted the Wall. Residents of this area would throw out their garbage by the Wall, set up latrines next to it, would jostle Jews worshiping at the site and would purposefully lead their animals through the area.

The Western Wall: From 1917 to 1967

In the First World War, Britain gained control of Jerusalem and then incorporated it into the British Mandate of Palestine.

Early on in the new administration of the city, the British vowed to uphold the status quo at religious sites (which was later codified in Article 13 of the Mandate for Palestine).

This meant that the British continued the Ottoman policy of banning benches, chairs and most Jewish religious articles from the Western Wall.

Although the Mandate for Palestine was supposed to facilitate a Jewish national home, the British regulations at the Wall actively restricted the Jewish population’s rights and stood in the way of their national aspirations.

This led to increased tensions between the Jews, Arabs, and the British in Jerusalem throughout the 1920s. These tensions came to a head in 1929, when a group of Jews marched to the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, raised the flag of the Jewish national movement, sang the movement’s anthem, and heard a brief speech from one of its members.

The next day, Muslims protested the Tisha B’Av march, inciting against the Jewish population and spreading the conspiracy that the Jews were going to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This tension then escalated and culminated in the 1929 riots that left 133 Jews dead across the country (including 66 in the ancient Jewish community of Hebron).

In the wake of these riots, the British formed an official commission on the Western Wall and determined that while the Jews were permitted to pray there, the Wall belonged to the Muslim community.

The commission further entrenched the restrictions on Jewish activities at the Wall, banning the placement of a traditional separation barrier between the sexes, disallowing the use of tables, chairs and benches, only allowing the use of a Holy Ark on certain holidays and fast days and forbidding the blowing of the ram’s horn (shofar).

The tensions at the Western Wall continued throughout the rest of the British Mandate. Amid these tensions, there was a concerted effort each year (from 1930 on) to blow the shofar at the Wall at the end of Yom Kippur as a means of traditionally finishing the Jewish Day of Atonement, while also refusing to submit to the British authorities’ draconian regulations.

During the Mandatory period, the last prayers held at the Western Wall occurred on November 29, 1947. After that date, the British closed off access to the Wall, and the Old City was held under siege by Arab militias and armies.

During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49, Jordan gained control over the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. Although it was stipulated in the armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan that Israeli Jews would be allowed to visit the site, it was not adhered to and for the next 19 years, no Israeli Jews were granted access to the Western Wall and no Jew was allowed to pray there.

The Western Wall: From the Six Day War Until Today

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel gained control over the Western Wall. One of the first Israelis to reach the site was then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who placed a prayer for peace in the Wall.

The custom of placing written prayers in the Western Wall developed in the 19th century and gained popularity during the Mandate period, when the British abolished the practice of etching names into the ancient stones.

Soon after the liberation of the Western Wall, Israel demolished the homes of the Mughrabi quarter (which buttressed the Wall’s prayer area), provided alternative housing for its residents and reimbursed them for the price of their houses.

In place of the Mughrabi quarter, Israel expanded the prayer area so that it could accommodate thousands of worshipers.

Even though Israel also gained control of the Temple Mount at the same time, the Jewish state agreed to give Muslim authorities control over the site and imposed a status quo agreement, whereby Jews are not allowed to pray there.

Therefore, under Israeli sovereignty, the Western Wall maintains its importance as a site of prayer close to the Holy of Holies and continues to symbolize the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Due to the symbolic importance of the Western Wall, it has become customary for various Israeli military units (such as the paratroopers, airforce and the elite Givati infantry unit) to have their swearing-in ceremony at the site.

However, the symbolic importance of the Western Wall has also made it the target of anti-Jewish violence. In 1974, the Israeli police were able to evacuate all the worshipers before a bottle bomb exploded at the site.

As well, during times of heightened tension, Arab rioters on the Temple Mount have thrown rocks and other projectiles onto the Jewish worshipers below, forcing the evacuation of the holy site’s plaza. Such incidents took place in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2016, and 2020.

Aside from the main Western Wall plaza, there are a few related sites that have become popular among both Israelis and tourists in recent years.

One of these is the “Kotel Katan” (“little Western Wall”), which is a continuation of the Western Wall that exists in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Smaller than the main Western Wall, this part of the Wall has increased in popularity over the years due to the fact that it is quiet and closer to the site of the Holy of Holies.

Another aspect of the Western Wall that has become popular in recent years is the Western Wall tunnels. Dug in the 1980s, the tunnels continue along the length of the Western Wall, underneath the Muslim quarter. The tunnels provide historians with the ability to research the Wall, while also allowing tourists to better understand the history of the Wall from antiquity until today.

The last Western Wall-related site that has gained popularity in recent years is the Ezrat Israel, the egalitarian section of the Wall. Located by Robinson’s Arch, close to the main plaza, this site allows for non-Orthodox Jews to conduct religious services without the traditional gender barrier that exists at the main plaza. However, this area has not been without controversy, with ultra-Orthodox Knesset members rallying against it and past incidents of violence taking place there.

The Western Wall & Islam

In Islam, the Western Wall is referred to as the Al-Buraq Wall. According to Islamic tradition, the Wall is where Mohammed tied up his winged animal, Buraq, while on his night journey from Mecca to heaven, via the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Before 1966, Islamic scholars and Palestinian nationalists recognized the Jewish claim to the Western Wall. However, since then (and particularly after the Six-Day War in 1967), Islamic scholars have sought to erase any Jewish connection to the Wall, claiming it to be a solely Muslim site.

Some examples of this historic revisionism and Islamization of this holy Jewish site include the former Mufti of Jerusalem’s claim that “Jews have no right to the Western Wall … and that this place is sacred for Muslims only,” the former Mufti of Egypt’s assertion that Muslims cannot “surrender” the wall as it is part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which sits atop the Temple Mount), and the Minister of Religious Affairs for the Palestinian Authority’s remark that “throughout history, no one besides Muslims has ever referred to the Western Wall as a worship place.”

This attempt to erase the Jewish connection to the Western Wall has even reached the halls of the United Nations.

In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a resolution put forward by six Muslim countries that recognized the Western Wall as a Muslim heritage site while degrading the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to it.

As can be seen from the above, the Western Wall is a significant holy site for the Jewish people. However, unlike what is sometimes claimed in the media, the Western Wall is not the holiest site for the Jewish people (that, of course, is the Temple Mount).

Nevertheless, the Western Wall still holds a special place in the heart of the Jewish people, as is attested to by the millions of people who visit the site every year.

It is important that, when reporting on Jerusalem’s holy sites, the media recognizes this distinction while also affirming the Jewish people’s unbreakable bond to the Western Wall.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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