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Measuring the “Holiness” of the Land of Israel: The Western Wall

Prof. Doron Bar
| 15/05/2010

The Western Wall After 1967

Ever since 1967 Israeli society has been preoccupied with the question of the quintessential meaning of the Western Wall. For over forty years since the Six Day War, many dilemmas and struggles centering on this holy place have surfaced. The conventional perception that has developed is that the religious establishment, in its various guises, determines the flavor of the site. Repeated attempts by the Israeli government and other bodies to inject national content into the Old City, the Jewish Quarter, and even the Western Wall, have generally failed. Although the Israeli flag flies in the center of the plaza in front of the Wall, IDF recruits are sworn in at the site, and the opening ceremony of Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers is held there, the Rabbi of the Wall and the Holy Places has thwarted all attempts to alter the religious aspect of the place as fashioned by him and his predecessors. Members of other streams of Judaism are often prevented from holding prayer services in their preferred style, and the separation between men and women and imposition of stringent ‘modesty’ strictures has intensified. The opening of religious-historical sites such as the Wall Tunnel, the Chain of the Generations and the Wall Heritage Center all testify to an increased “Religious-ization”  of the Wall at the expense of its “Israeli-ness.”

The Western Wall and the Zionist Movement

With the formation of the Zionist Movement and its increasing activity in the Land of Israel, the question of the Movement’s attitude to the holiness of the Land, particularly Jerusalem, its holy places and the Western Wall, became more prominent. The Zionists preferred to concentrate on settling and ‘redeeming’ the Land, and were selective in their use of its aspect of holiness. When Theodore Herzl visited Jerusalem in 1898, he envisioned the Old City without political ownership, belonging to all nations as a center of faith, love and science. He wanted Jewish Jerusalem to develop outside the realm of the holy, placing less emphasis on the aspect of holiness. “My heart cannot feel deep emotion,” he wrote of his visit to the Wall (Theodore Herzl, The Jewish Cause: Diaries, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 1999, p. 54).

Despite the preference of many Zionist leaders to avoid attaching great importance to Jerusalem, the Western Wall nonetheless became central to Jewish-Hebrew discourse, especially against the background of the nationalist struggle between Jews and Arabs in those years. The leadership of the State-in-making strived to disregard the ‘earthly,’ physical Jerusalem and focus on the symbolic value of the ‘heavenly,’ spiritual one; but this quickly evaporated when the British established Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine-Israel. Zionist leaders were forced to take a stand regarding the Wall, which was the site of several violent eruptions by Arabs against Jews, as a holy place, and to safeguard the Jews’ freedom of worship there.

The Impact of the Six Day War on the Western Wall

Following the capture of the city by the IDF on the third day of the war, a stream of Israeli public officials wound their way to the Western Wall, sometimes with an interest to be seen visiting the site. The many visitors to the Wall in those hours came out of genuine religious yearning to touch the stones of the Wall and to pray there, as well as being politically motivated; there was internal rivalry amongst leaders who took part in preparation for the war and in the battle itself. If until 1967 Jewish prayer at the Wall was conducted under the auspices of foreign rule and in the midst of dispute with Muslim residents, a radically different reality came about after the war. The Western Wall was now under Israeli rule, allowing the State to renovate the area both physically and symbolically.

Even before the war ended, as the public came in waves to the Old City and to the Wall, a quick decision was made by the military governor and Jerusalem municipality officials to transform the site to accommodate masses of people. Only four days after the war ended, bulldozers were at work, systematically destroying many of the 150 Mugrabi homes next to the Wall in order to build a plaza. Prior to the War of Independence, Jews had to make do with a narrow strip of a few square meters in front of the Wall; now, an expansive area of several dunam was created.

On Shavuot 5727, a crowd of over 200,000 people gathered on the new plaza by the Wall. For most, either young native Israelis or new immigrants, it was the first time they were seeing it. Large numbers of people continued to flock to the Wall after Shavuot, and the renewed ritual activity plus the lack of clear rules for prayer services created logistical confusion that highlighted the need for an established order at the place.  Suggestions, some of them quite strange, were put forth for the re-design of the physical space and the establishment of prayer service procedures. These included covering the plaza with carpeting and requiring visitors to approach barefoot; erecting a tower decorated with symbols of Jewish history to commemorate fallen soldiers; or adding a row of black stone to the top of the Wall upon which important events and disasters in Jewish history would be depicted.

The mixed crowd, which included many secular people for whom a visit to holy places was not a familiar routine, did not know exactly how to behave at the site; they occasionally displayed insensitivity to the religious nature of the place. In an effort to guide the public in the rules of acceptable behavior, newspaper ads appeared that specified proper conduct at the holy places and specifically at the Western Wall. The mingling of sanctified and profane created an unusual situation that prompted immediate criticism from many sources.

Even before 1967, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz criticized the development of cultic activity at holy sites; following the war, when public interest in the matter grew, he called for “dispensing with the holy places, including the Western Wall.” He labeled the Wall the ‘Diskotel,’ proposing that the plaza in front be converted to a ‘Divine Disco,’ the country’s largest discotheque. “The Western Wall,” others noted with sarcasm, “has turned into a lot with a wall. The hugepiazza del populo that is dotted with police barriers, temporary shacks,tzedakah boxes, black nylon sheeting, and cars belonging to big shots with special permits.” Others added their protest saying, “This is an outdoor synagogue that provides business for photographers, beggars, tefillinsalesmen, and Jews praying for other Jews for money. It is a noisy, dirty picnic area.”

Whom Does the Wall Belong To?

The Ministry of Religious Affairs, responsible for the Western Wall, has taken certain steps that have caused a storm of protest among many Israelis. Most controversial was the separation barrier between men and women, which allots an area for male worshippers four times the size of the women’s prayer area. During the 30-day or so period that the Western Wall was under the jurisdiction of the Military Rabbinate, there was no such separation, and prayer, like everything else that took place at the wall, was mixed. Themehitza barrier that was erected afterwards was a first. Earlier, towards the end of Ottoman rule and during the Mandate period, there had been attempts to separate the sexes at the Wall, but these failed mainly due to strong objections by the British who opposed any change to the status quo.

Transforming the Western Wall into a synagogue caused tremendous resentment. The Ha’aretz daily newspaper wrote: “Who decided that the Western Wall is strictly a religious site? Is it not a national historical relic? […] Among many groups in today’s society a separation barrier is intolerable and unacceptable.” Then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol referred to the separated areas as ‘pens,’ making the mehitza a political issue and battleground between Israeli political parties and the religious establishment. In response, the Ministry of Religious Affairs overcame its strained relationship with the Chief Rabbinate to explain that “only chief rabbis may set the rules for the Western Wall,” and that since the Wall is a holy place and a house of prayer, male and female worshippers must be kept separated. They claimed, among other things, that just as in the Temple there was a separation between the sexes, so should there be a mehitza at the Wall.


The argument over the fundamental nature of the Western Wall and the right of all Israelis, religious and secular alike, to have a share in the place and identify with its symbolism, began in the days and hours after the war. As soon as the last shot ceased to echo and silence returned, the site became problematic and posed a challenge. The problem did not exist prior to 1948; the Western Wall then occupied a marginal place in the Zionist consciousness, among both leaders and Jewish residents in the Land.  In 1967, though, the situation changed completely. Not only did the State of Israel now control the site, but many among the Israeli public took an interest in the Western Wall, visited it, and desired to share in its national, as well as its religious, symbolism.

Dr. Doron Bar is Advisor to the Land of Israel Studies Track.  His most recent book Planning and Conserving Jerusalem: The Challenge of an Ancient City 1973- 2003, was published by Yad Ben Zvi in 2009.

Photo by Photo Aviv, KKL’s Photos Archive.

Doron Bar, former president and dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, is a professor of Land of Israel studies. He earned his PhD from The Hebrew University in Historical Geography. Professor Bar is researching the development of popular and national holy places. He is a seventh generation descendant of an Old Yishuv Jerusalem family.

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