Meeting the Crown Jewel of Jewish History

October 1, 2013
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They tell me this is the Wall,” wrote Jewish activist and writer Elie Wiesel in the pages of a special issue of Hadassah Magazine in July 1967 on his first visit to the Kotel after the Six-Day War. He went on, “I don’t believe it… I am afraid to believe it. Deep down, of course, I realize they are right, that indeed it is the very Wall — which Jew cannot recognize it instantly!  Yet, I cannot believe that it is I, I, who now stands before it, gazing as if in a dream….” Beholding this architectural monument to Jewish continuity for the first time, he seems to speak of the miracle of 1967 within a broader span of Jewish history, a place and space where “the enemy…was defeated by the totality of Jewish history itself! Two thousand years of suffering, longing, and hope were mobilizing for the battle.” He and others helped inspire American Jewry’s appreciation of the “1967 moment,” which allowed American Jews to reimagine both Israel and themselves and cemented a connection between the Diaspora Jewish community and the State of Israel.

Prior to 1967, most American Jews had a supportive, if tenuous, connection to the State of Israel, and few had actually visited the fledgling country. The Western Wall itself — under Jordanian sovereignty for the two decades after the 1948 War of Independence — was both physically and emotionally inaccessible. (The lack of physical accessibility to the Wall contributed to its becoming an idealized monument rather than a place with a visceral emotional connection to Israelis and other Jews.) Moreover, the Kotel was primarily considered a site of devotional life for pilgrims rather than a symbol of national liberation and unity. In contrast, the Six-Day War was a gripping cosmic drama that played out over television and radio, and from synagogue pulpits across the United States. The drama captured Jewish-American attention as never before, especially the conquest of Jerusalem, with the cry of charismatic army commander Mordechai (Motta) Gur, “Har Habayit beyadeinu!” “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” The ensuing sound of the shofar being blown and the sight of soldiers weeping at the Western Wall resonated with Jews around the world.

For the surge of tourists, volunteers, and students who came to the state after that war, the Kotel became a focal point of activity. Publishing a reflection on her experiences in Israel in the fall issue of Midstream magazine, Chana Faerstein, an American-Israeli English professor at the Hebrew University, shared the thrilling moment of the capture of the Old City: “Jerusalem is ours! …We listened suddenly wide awake, to the thrilling account of the conquering army…People stream into the streets…hugging, kissing, crying mazal tov!”

Journalist Ruth Gruber Michaels recounted praying at the Kotel several weeks later, on the night of Tisha B’Av: “We joined tens of thousands at the Western Wall. The people, winding their way up the hills, their faces lit by the moon, were like people in a medieval painting. There was no sadness this Tisha B’Av. Now was the time for rejoicing. …At last we reached the Wall…I stood with the women and prayed…prayed for my children, for Phil [her husband], for Jerusalem…prayed that there would be no more war.” (Hadassah Magazine)  A tourism supplement from 1967 suggested that the Western Wall represented Jewish
history finally brought to life, a “living Bible” for all to visit.

For theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who reported on his enraptured visit to the Western Wall that fall (again in Hadassah Magazine), the Wall was not only an existing monument to Jewish unity and jubilation but also a harbinger of messianic deliverance: “At first I fainted. Then I saw: a wall of frozen tears, a cloud of sighs… The Wall. Stubborn, loving, waiting for redemption. The ground on which I stand is Amen. My words become echoes. All of our history is waiting here… What is the Wall? The unceasing marvel. Expectation. The Wall will not perish. The redeemer will come.”1 From these various points of view, the Western Wall emerged as a symbol of both the Jewish past and future for the American Jewish community.

Arabs were absent in the accounts of Jewish-Americans visiting the Wall in the months just after the war, and few people seemed to imagine how Palestinians and others would react after Israel annexed East Jerusalem (and the Old City). The narrative told a story of “reluctant conquerors” (Michaels’ column title) over “vanquished Arabs” (a column by the editor on Abba Eban’s perceived heroic diplomacy over Arab recalcitrance at the United Nations). Some writings, such as Molly Lyons Bar-David’s column, “Diary of an Israeli Housewife,” expressed a patronizing naiveté: “It’s hard to know now what most Arabs think about us or their future. But most of them, I hope, realize that we want what’s good for them.”  Attitudes toward Palestinians and others who had claims to the area surrounding the site soon hardened.

The Western Wall was seen as the “crown jewel” of religious-nationalist pilgrimage sites and a tourism and settlement gateway to many — especially those with newfound interest in the occupied territories. For them, the Western Wall was a Jewish-Israeli monument. Since the 1960s, Jewish-American travel to Israel has become more routinized for both individuals and the institutions of American Jewry (such as federations), and the Kotel has become a mandatory stop on any visit to the state — with photographs to document the experience. Today, the Kotel hosts a diverse population of other pilgrims from the United States, from Christian Zionists to Hollywood celebrities. Most recently, the Western Wall has also been a site of Jewish-American advocacy, including the active participation of American Jews across the denominational (and political) spectrum with the group Women of the Wall.

History suggests that while cracks have often appeared in the Diapora-Israeli relationship over the past 40 years, the Western Wall will continue to play a pivotal role in building the bond that exists today.

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Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the University Research Lecturer/Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Her research focuses primarily on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israel conflict, and the relationship between the United States/American Jewry and Israel. A frequent op-ed columnist for Haaretz, Hirschhorn lectures widely and is currently at work on a book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement.

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