Five women were arrested today at the Western Wall as the dispute about the right of non-Orthodox Jews to conduct egalitarian services there continued. The confrontation that came, as it always does, on the first day of the Hebrew month displayed the usual nastiness as an Orthodox man was also arrested reportedly for trying to burn a prayer book of one of the Women of the Wall. But there were some hopeful signs that the compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky won’t be opposed by Orthodox leaders. In particular, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Foundation that currently runs things at the Wall, said he wouldn’t oppose Sharansky’s plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza so as to create another equally large space in which egalitarian services may be held.
Sharansky’s idea for creating “One Kotel for One People” based on the principles of access, equality and unity is a good one. If implemented, it would not only substantially improve the site; it would effectively end a long-running argument that serves only to alienate the majority of American Jews from Israel. But as I wrote yesterday, the real obstacle to this project is not the desire of some to keep the Wall functioning solely as an Orthodox synagogue rather than as a national shrine for all Jews. The problem is the willingness of Palestinians to use threats of violence to prevent any changes in the area. What I did not discuss fully yesterday was why exactly the Muslim religious authorities that control the Temple Mount compound above the Wall Plaza would care about stopping Jewish religious services. The answer goes to the heart of the Palestinian rejection of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem or any part of the country.
Any attempt to expand the area of the ancient remnant of the Second Temple will hinge on a renovation of the Mugrabi Bridge, a ramp that allows access to the Temple Mount from the area around the Wall. As I noted previously, Muslims reacted to an Israeli plan to repair that facility with threats of violence even though it would have been to their benefit. They did the same thing in 1996 about the opening of a Western Wall tunnel exit that had nothing to do with them.
Some put this down only to the bad feelings that have poisoned all relations between Jews and Arabs in the dispute over sovereignty over Jerusalem and the land of Israel/Palestine. But this is not just a manifestation of malice. Muslim clerics associated with both the “moderates” of the Palestinian Authority and the extremists of Hamas agree that Jews have no claim to any part of the Western Wall, no matter how they wish to pray there.
The Wakf, the Muslim authority that governs the Temple Mount compound, claims that the Kotel is part of their bailiwick and reject Jewish sovereignty over any part of it or the city that surrounds it. Palestinian Authority leaders and their media have repeatedly claimed that the ancient temples were not built on the Mount where Muslim conquerors subsequently built mosques, just as they deny the associations of the Jews with the rest of their ancient homeland.
As Haaretz notes, the Wakf is opposed to any plans that might expand Jewish worship at the Wall or allow more people to have access to it. They also oppose all archeological digs in the area since they further establish the historical validity of Jewish claims. They also use spurious claims that Jews are trying to undermine the structure of the Mount—the same sort of libel that led to bloody Arab pogroms against Jews in the past—in order to whip up anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
There is no doubt that these unscrupulous Palestinian leaders will use the same tactics to prevent Sharansky’s plan from ever being realized. That is regrettable. But what American Jews who rightly lament the situation at the Wall should understand is that the bigger problem in Jerusalem isn’t the dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews but the one in which Palestinians attempt to deny the rights of all Jews. Prior to June 1967, no Jews could pray at any part of the Wall or step foot in the Old City of Jerusalem, and that is the situation Palestinians are trying to restore. Those determined to fight to the bitter end on issues of Jewish pluralism should remember that the bigger, far more important battle is part of the ongoing Arab war to destroy Israel.