Early Zionists: A Low-Key Approach to the Kotel

October 1, 2013
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“Every Jew dreamed of it for 2,000 years, but no one thought it would happen so fast.” —Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, June 7, 1967

In May 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, a reporter asked David Ben-Gurion whether he felt a yearning for the Western Wall. “I feel no yearning,” Israel’s founding father replied. “Why not?” the reporter asked him, taken aback. “Because it is not in our hands.” Ben-Gurion’s response is not surprising to anyone familiar with how the formative Zionist leaders — from Theodor Herzl to Ben-Gurion — approached the holy places in Jerusalem.

The leading early Zionists — including Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion, in addition to the religious-Zionist movement — differentiated clearly between the “heavenly Jerusalem” and its earthly counterpart. The Jewish national movement was named for Jerusalem, known biblically as Zion, and that symbolism, spiritually and politically, mobilized the country. That early leadership adopted a halakhic approach stating that the return of the holy places would happen only at the end of days. Insistence on those sites, it was understood, could be seen as an obstacle that would prevent Zionism from realizing its goal: the
establishment of a state for the Jews. Even when ardent young Jews fell into the trap set for them by the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1929, as he sought to turn the Western Wall into an arena of national struggle, the Zionist leadership did not follow suit. The leaders of the yishuv (the prestate organized Jewish community in Palestine) stopped attempts by the secular Zionist Betar (revisionist youth movement) and the Hapoel (labor sport movement) to establish (or protect) a mechitzah (partition) near the Wall. In 1937, the Jewish Agency executive (with the authority to negotiate with the Mandate government) informed the British government that, in the event of the partition of Palestine, the Jews would forgo the holy places in Jerusalem. Jerusalem would be divided and the western part of the city, where no holy places exist, would become the capital of the Jewish state. The eastern section, with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holy places — including the Western Wall — would remain a British Protectorate.

Ben-Gurion believed that it was impossible to mobilize the Jewish people in favor of a Jewish state without “Jerusalem.” Yet, some Jewish people unfamiliar with Jerusalem’s map in details, did not distinguish between the Rehavia neighborhood in the western section and the Old City (where the Wall is located) in the eastern section. Accordingly, in 1949, Israel secretly reached an agreement with Jordan, contrary to the approach of the United Nations, to divide the city based on the principles of 1937. This state of affairs, which enjoyed a tacit British backing, made it possible for Israel to declare western Jerusalem its capital in December 1949. The principle that had functioned tacitly for 50 years became a concrete reality.

To all appearances, the government of Israel did not ignore the Jewish attachment to the Wall. The April 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan stipulated that the Palestinians who had abandoned their homes on the seam between the western and eastern parts of the city would be allowed to return. Concurrently, Jews who wished to pray at the Wall would be allowed to do so. And yet both sides found it convenient not to fulfill these clauses. Israel did not want the Palestinians too close to the border between West and East Jerusalem, and was therefore willing to give up on the “Wall deal.” The Israeli state system set out to translate the situation into a tenable reality. The Ministry of Religious Affairs industriously empowered, and even invented, holy places in the Israeli part of the city, such as King David’s Tomb and the President’s Room on Mount Zion, the office of President Yitzchak Ben Zvi. And Israelis who visited Jerusalem could catch a glimpse of the Wall from Mount Zion or from the Notre Dame hostel.

In 1956, on the eve of the Sinai War, Israel wanted to take advantage of its collaboration with Britain and France against Egypt to launch an eastward offensive; Israel wanted to get to the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus and perhaps reach the Jordan River. Nothing was said about the Wall; that was not a coincidence.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel faced serious national problems, such as immigration, the economy, and security. Those issues, along with a secular national ethos of national maximalism and territorial minimalism (a real, independent Jewish state in a part of Eretz Yisrael), left the holy places an abstract issue that lay beyond the state’s urgent attention. The National Religious Party (NRP), founded in 1955, was the standard bearer of the separation between religious considerations and issues relating to state policy and the military. On the eve of the Israeli army’s entry into the Old City, on June 7, 1967, Interior Minister Haim Moshe Shapira, from the NRP, stated in the cabinet that going into the Old City of Jerusalem was one thing, but getting out might be a different matter.

Israel won that war with a crushing victory.
Immediately, leaders of the government and army visited the Wall; the visit was suffused with the joy of victory but devoid of religious ritual until Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren of the Israel Defense Forces arrived and brought a messianic fervor to this national event.

In this fraught period, no one noticed that the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, had ordered the IDF to leave the Temple Mount (and created a policy of not having Israeli soldiers police the area that remains in effect to this day). And few noticed when the IDF ordered the demolition of the Palestinian Mughrabi neighborhood that abutted the Wall, instantly creating the well-known plaza to the west of the Wall. Erased with the Mughrabi neighborhood were 70 years of Zionist and Israeli policies that had kept dealings with the Western Wall low profile. The Israeli public accepted the approach that the Mufti had sought 40 years earlier — to acknowledge both the national and religious character of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Today, IDF recruits take their oath of allegiance at the Western Wall, and it is the site of the keynote memorial ceremony for Israelis who have fallen in the line of duty. And, with the rise of religious nationalism since the 1970s, there have been increasing calls to confer religious validity on the takeover of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The proponents of this approach wish to exclude from the site not only Muslims but also Jews — men and women — who in their view are neither religious nor nationalistic enough.

The desire to preserve a symbolic connection with this holy place has become a fraught cause whose more fundamental advocates endanger Israel’s existence — no less. The Wall should be a free site for any Jewish religious rituals. And Israeli society should return to its pre-1967 plan of hosting national ceremonies in the western part of Jerusalem on Mount Herzl. It is essential to remember the symbolic differentiation between the “heavenly Jerusalem” and its earthly — now Zionist — counterpart. We should go back and heed what Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion had to say about this issue.


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Motti Golani is a professor at Tel Aviv University studying the history of the British Mandate and the State of Israel. He is a former Senior Member at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, U.K. Golani is the author of many books on Israel and the Mandate period, including Zion in Zionism: The Zionist Policy and the Question of Jerusalem, 1937-1949; Palestine Between Politics and Terror, 1945-1947; and Wars Don’t Just Happen, Israeli Memory, Power and Free Will.

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