“It is the right of our Orthodox brethren to pour their hearts out in prayer at the Western Wall. But it is no less the right of other people to come and meditate in silence at the age-old wall.”
These are the words of Meyer J. Perath in a letter to the editor of The Jerusalem Post that was published July 2, 1967. With many American Jews focused on the recent decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renege on a deal regarding egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, it’s fitting to look at the issue with some broader context.
Israel gained control over new territory 50 years ago in the stunning victory of the June 1967 war. That territory included the Old City of Jerusalem and the holy places there (the Western Wall among them). The capture of the Old City from Jordan and, with it, access to the Wall was a euphoric moment in Israel’s brief history — a moment preserved by the iconic photo of the three IDF paratroopers gazing at the Kotel.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis streamed into Jerusalem to visit the Wall. According to press accounts, between June 14 (which was Shavuot) and June 17, 1967, 350,000 people made a modern-day pilgrimage to the Kotel and Mount of Olives.
The large crowds prompted public debate over issues of decorum, access and even appropriate dress.
The Knesset deliberated over the issue of applying Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the status of the holy places now under Israeli control, passing the Protection of Holy Places Law on June 27, 1967. The law states, “The holy places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of the members of different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.”
An incident in July 1967 further highlights that the controversy over rights at the Kotel is not a new phenomenon.
Dr. Rom Moav, a leader in the League for the Prevention of Religious Coercion, arrived at the Wall with his wife and children on July 19. Moav refused to cover his head, and his wife and daughter tried to accompany him and his son to the Wall, bypassing the separate section for women.
A crowd of worshippers attempted to block their access. The family was taken into police custody and later released.
In response to the Moav event, another letter to the editor of The Jerusalem Post on Aug. 20 said: “The Western Wall is our Wall. … How arrogant it is to say that the experience of being at the Wall must be enjoyed by men and women separately; when many of us with roots in the American Liberal Jewish tradition would argue precisely the opposite; that the separation of sexes at prayer is … actually a degrading and harmful custom.”
When, in August 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol remarked in an interview that he was opposed to the separation of men and women at the Kotel, the National Religious Party (one of the parties in Eshkol’s coalition) rebuked him. Only the Chief Rabbinate was authorized to make those decisions, according to the party.
Shlomo Israel Ben-Meir, the deputy minister of the interior and a member of the NRP, asked the press, “Why is the premier ready to confer control of Christian and Muslim holy places on their respective religious authorities but not those of Judaism on the Chief Rabbinate?”
As you can see, the controversy regarding control over prayer and decorum at the Kotel has existed almost from the moment that the Old City was captured from Jordan during the June 1967 war.
At the heart of the issue are questions over the separation of religion and state in Israel (which dates to a 1947 agreement between David Ben-Gurion and the Agudat Israel religious Zionist faction), the Israel-Diaspora relationship, and the inner workings of the political system in Israel. To truly understand the complexities of Netanyahu’s recent decision, one must explore all three.
Rich Walter is the associate director for Israel education at the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).