Until the 15th century, the Kotel was almost unknown, certainly unvisited among most Jews. Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem, and the Jewish residents of the city, expressed their longing for the sacred place, the Temple Mount, from a distance. They climbed the Mount of Olives, to the east of the city, looked toward the Temple Mount, and prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple. It was probably during the later part of the Mamluk rule (1291-1516) that the Jewish Quarter was established in its current place, and the Kotel became an important site of worship. In this process, the sanctity of the place for Jews intensified; the midrash that originally referred to the Shekhinah hovering over the western wall of the Temple itself was reinterpreted as “the Shekhinah never left the Western Wall of the Temple Mount compound.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Melakhim 195) Soon thereafter began the struggle for the rights of Jews to pray there.
This very space was sacred to Muslims as well. According to Muslim tradition, the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount, and the area to the west of it was dedicated as a Muslim pious endowment by Nur al-Din, the son of Saladin in the 13th century. It was used as place of meditation for Muslim saints from the Maghreb (North Africa),as well as a residence for Mughrabis who decided to settle in the holy city.
Since the Ottoman Period, beginning in 1517, the Kotel has been a barometer of Jewish-Muslim relations in the city. When the parties were on good terms, the Jews enjoyed freedom of access and worship. When the Muslims suspected that the Jews intended to take over the area, they restricted their movement. For Muslims, Jewish attempts to make the Kotel “theirs,” smelled of ingratitude: Under Christian rule, Jews had not been allowed to live in the city. In fact, Muslim leaders, such as Omar Ibn al-Khattab who defeated the Byzantines in the 7th century and Saladin, who reconquered the city from the Crusaders in the 12th century, were the ones to allow the re-establishment of Jewish community in Jerusalem. And they expected the Jews to be grateful. The Muslim approach was also based on the concept of dhimitude: Jews and Christians were allowed to live in peace and security in the Islamic empire as long as they did not challenge the legitimacy of the state and accepted the hierarchical political order according to which Islam was superior to other religions.
In the first three centuries of the Ottoman rule in the country, this hierarchy was maintained and the tension near the Kotel was easily contained. But the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the ascension of Western powers in Jerusalem in the 19th century shook the delicate interreligious status quo in the city. Two European Jews, Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and Baron Edmund de-Rothschild (1845-1934) personify the dramatic change. Both were close to European decision-making circles. Both (separately) were active in supporting Jewish communities in late-Ottoman Palestine. Both tried to purchase the Kotel from the Mughrabi community, offering significant sums of money. Both failed. However, their activities increased the awareness among the Arabs that the Jews, together with the European superpowers, were keen to take over the holy places in Jerusalem if not the Holy Land as a whole.
Sure enough, Muslims and Jews interpret those Jewish efforts to purchase the Kotel in totally different ways. For Jews, the attempt was based on a desire to make access for prayer at the holy site easier; they claimed they would not harm anyone. For Muslims, the effort symbolized the degradation of their status: from a ruling class to a community living under constant foreign (European and Jewish) manipulation. They experienced it as a Zionist attempt to uproot them from their ancient homeland. Moreover, they understood the effort as proof that the greater Zionist goal was to rebuild the Temple on the site of al-Aqsa Mosque. Thus, they responded with increased efforts to maintain their own presence at the site and to put obstacles before the Jewish worshippers.
It was, therefore, no surprise that the struggle over the Kotel led to mass demonstrations in 1929 by Jews in Jerusalem, to mutual acts of lynching in the city, and to violent Muslim outbursts throughout the country in August of that year. Four decades later, after the Israeli forces entered the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 War, before the battles even ended, Israeli officers evacuated the 650 residents of the Mughrabi Quarter (the area in front of the Kotel) and totally demolished it.
Arabs viewed this as a step toward taking over the Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount with its sacred mosques. From a Jewish perspective, the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter and the build up of the plaza in front of the Kotel can be interpreted as a conscious effort to privilege the Wall over the Temple Mount. It, along with Moshe Dayan’s decision to remove the Israeli flag from the Dome of the Rock and to prohibit Jews from praying on the Mount, would also channel and contain Jewish messianic emotions. However, a growing number of Jews and Jewish movements (such as the Temple Institute of Rabbi Yisrael Ariel and the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement of Gershon Salomon) argue that the Kotel is only a substitute for the holy mountain and Holy Temple. They believe that the Kotel should return to its original function — a wall that supports the ramp upon which the Third Temple will be built.email print