September 25, 2009
By Anshel Pfeffer
You may have been scandalized this week upon reading in Haaretz about the sex segregation of citizenship ceremonies for new immigrants at the Western Wall, at the insistence of the rabbi who rules the Wall and all it surveys. If so, you are wasting your breath. It is a well-known fact that despite having captured and formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has de facto ceded sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
On the eastern side of the Wall, it is the Muslim Waqf (religious trust) that runs the mosques and their environs. Construction work that destroys ancient archaeological remains goes on unimpeded. Once every few years, when rioting breaks out, police break into the compound, but the rest of the time, the state's control ends at the gate. It is a less well-known fact that a similar process has taken place on the western side of the Wall. Formally, the Wall is under the management of the Center for the Development of Holy Places in the Ministry of Religious Services. But in practice, one man holds sway there: Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, who holds the grand title of Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Holy Places.
Rabbi Rabinovich may technically be a civil servant, but his real bosses are a small number of senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis who lay down the line. And over the last decade or so, that line has steadily moved away from the Wall and now encompasses the entire area, all the way up to the houses of the Jewish Quarter.
Technically, only the small sunken courtyard adjacent to the Wall is a place of prayer, and therefore divided between men and women. But Rabinovich, with his small army of publicly-funded guards, has tried to enforce his rule much further away. Separate entry gates for men and women have been erected, and at every opportunity, ugly wooden fences and signs have also been erected, crisscrossing the entire enclosure in an attempt to enforce the Orthodox idea of modesty - which basically means keeping men and women, boys and girls, apart from each other at the earliest possible age.
Non-Orthodox groups realized this long ago, and after butting their heads against the Wall for years, via demonstrations and Supreme Court petitions, are making do with the Robinson Arch prayer area just around the corner.
Rabinovich is a wily politician with good contacts in all camps. He is especially close to President Shimon Peres, and officiated at most of the second marriages of Labor ministers. He is also a capable fund-raiser and builder: Thanks to him, facilities at the Wall and its tunnels have greatly improved in recent years.
As a gradualist, he knows he cannot have his way all the time. If he had tried to separate the sexes at the annual memorial ceremony for fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers, there would have been an overwhelming outcry. Nor does he interfere with events of the Paratroopers Brigade, which is credited (with partial accuracy) with liberating the site in the Six-Day War.
But over the last few years, he has managed to intervene in most other ceremonies organized by the army and other groups, including, most recently, the Jewish Agency's bright idea of giving new Israelis their first identity card at a special event by the Wall. The entire area is a place of prayer, he says, and therefore, his rules hold: Families must be separated, and as a whole, nonreligious activity is frowned upon. Few are willing to argue with him, with the result that in most cases, ceremonies have been moved elsewhere.
From a purely religious point of view, there is nothing inherently holy about the Western Wall: It is the outer perimeter of the Temple compound rebuilt by Herod around 20 BCE. The standard answer many rabbis give is that the site was consecrated over the generations by millions of Jews who poured out their prayers, hopes and tears before God in front of that wall. But in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, Jews prayed at the Southern Wall, opposite the sealed Gate of Mercy. The veneration of the western side is much more recent.
Some archaeologists even believe that under the flagstones of today's prayer area lies an ancient burial ground, also used by Jews. If this were a planned hospital wing or an extension of Route 6, ultra-Orthodox groups would be up in arms against the desecration of graves. But here, they already have control.
Throughout the centuries, the Ottoman and then the Mandatory British authorities never allowed an official synagogue at the Wall. Jews could stand and pray, but not even a chair was allowed there. Only in 1967, when the site first came under Israeli control, was responsibility officially transferred to the officials and rabbis of what was then the Religious Affairs Ministry.
In the 1990s, a legal argument raged over the right of non-Orthodox groups to pray at the Wall according to their customs. But who ever said it was a synagogue to begin with?
The wider debate about the Western Wall's identity - whether it is a religious site or a monument of national importance, fought for mainly by secular soldiers and its upkeep paid for mainly by the taxpayer - has never taken place. But for all intents and purposes, the question has been decided. It is the Orthodox who regularly visit the place, who pray there at all hours of the day, every day, who make sure that all their children visit. The rest of the Israeli public is just not interested enough in the most fundamental extant symbol of the Jewish people's historical connection to this land.