It was 1928. Manachem Ussishkin, the Russian Zionist leader at the head of the Jewish National Fund, threw down the gauntlet. The “Jewish people,” he said, “will not rest and will not remain silent until its national home is built on our Mount Moriah.” From that point on, the Kotel – the “Wailing Wall” to Christendom and the Western Wall to Jews – became the focus of Jewish national aspirations.
In September 1928, on Yom Kippur, Jews gathered in the narrow garbage-strewn street before the Kotel to pray for forgiveness and deliverance. A temporary mechitzah was set up to separate the men from the women. The mechitzah was illegal. Indeed, ever since mid-1925, even folding chairs for the use of elderly worshipers at the Kotel were banned by the British Mandatory Government. On that Yom Kippur, as fate would have it, the British high commissioner, Edward Keith-Roach, was in a nearby building and saw the temporary mechitzah. He ordered armed troops into the crowd to tear it down.
The Kotel now grew even greater in importance to the Jews, both in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine) and outside it.
Months later, on the evening of Wednesday Aug. 14, 1929, a well-attended Haganah-organized rally in Tel Aviv sent a message loud and clear to the Yishuv: It was time to take back the Kotel. The next morning, Tishah b’Av, a number of radical Jewish groups marched on the site, shouting, “the Wall is ours.” The local Arab population was enraged, and made more so by the fiery antics of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem.
Nine days later, the lid came off the pressure cooker. A pogrom began in Jerusalem and quickly spread throughout the Mandate. Seventeen people were killed in the holy city. In Hebron, there were 68 dead and another 60 wounded; a Hadassah hospital clinic was torched. Among the dead were 42 teachers and students of a Hebron yeshivah. In T’sfat (Safed), there were 17 dead and 80 wounded. The weeklong rioting claimed 133 Jewish dead and 200 wounded. On the other side, 116 Arabs died and 230 or so were wounded.
Now the Kotel loomed largest. Even after statehood was declared and an armistice secured, the Kotel stood as a symbol of a dream only partially fulfilled.
All that changed on June 7, 1967. At 8:30 a.m. that Wednesday, Col. Mordechai “Motta” Gur uttered a single word into a field telephone. We can only imagine the emotions that ran through him as he enunciated each of its three syllables.
“Kadimah,” he ordered. Advance.
The word given, Gur’s 55th Paratroop Brigade stormed through the Old City’s Lion’s Gate into history. Ninety minutes later, the sound of a shofar announced to the world that the return of the Jewish people to their land was irrevocable.
The Kotel was now and forever in Jewish hands.
For much too long since then, the Kotel has been one of the most contested sites in the Jewish world. Only now, the contest was Jew vs. Jew, and specifically charedi men vs. liberal-minded women of all Jewish streams seeking equal access to the focus of Jewish dreams for 2,000 years.
That soon may change. The head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, has proposed a compromise solution that appears to have near-universal support. (See article on page 14.)
The plan, however, awaits acceptance by Israel’s cabinet and the Knesset. It also will require the expenditure of hundreds of millions of shekels.
If the plan is adopted, and we hope that it is, it will take many years to complete. We urge all sides, meanwhile, to back off from the precipice on which the two sides have been teetering these many years. Let the Kotel again be a symbol of our national dreams, not our sectarian nightmares.