The Wailing Wall
Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 08.01.2008:
Heritage, Nationalism and the Shifting Symbolism of the Wailing Wall
The study of symbols, the creation of historic narrative, ‘invented’ traditions, and heritage symbolism, have become common fields of study among Israeli researchers.1 Thus far, however, there has been no attempt to apply this approach to the physical transformation of a significant area of the Old City of Jerusalem.2 Carried out by the Israeli authorities after the 1967 capture of East Jerusalem, this transformation concerns in particular the ‘Wailing Wall’, that segment of the outer compound of the Herodian Temple (and, by the same token, of the Muslim Haram al-Sharif) which since early modern times has been a religious focus for Jews. Yet these changes, which seek to erase a centuries-old Arab past and replace it with a new, exclusively Jewish space adapted to the symbolism of a modern Jewish state, provide excellent grounds for such an approach. This paper proposes to examine both alterations to this space’s meanings before 1967, as well as physical changes to the Wall area since that time. It also proposes to assess the extent to which recent efforts to make the Wall ‘the’ Israeli national symbol, celebrating both Zionist values and Jewish religious tradition, have succeeded.
The Beginnings of Tradition
While the Wailing Wall today is universally acclaimed as Judaism’s most sacred monument, its centrality to the religion is not as ancient as is commonly thought. We know from pilgrims and travellers in the fifteenth century that it was not the Wailing Wall, but the Mount of Olives outside the Old City that was dedicated once a year to the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple.3 The Wailing Wall area – a narrow courtyard (120 square meters) in front of the Wall enclaved within the fourteenth century Muslim Moroccan Quarter – was defined and set apart only during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century.
F.E. Peters, in his comprehensive collection of travellers’ and pilgrims’ documents concerning Jerusalem, observes that only from the early years of that century did Jewish visitors describe the Wailing Wall and connect it with the earlier tradition of the ‘Presence of God.’4 Even the ‘official’ history of the Wall published by the Israeli defence ministry in the early 1980s, while noting that “literary reports of travellers and pilgrims, particularly in the last centuries, are full of descriptions of the Western Wall,” added that “it should, however, be pointed out that for hundreds of years, during nearly the whole of the Middle Ages, there is hardly any reference to the Wall.”5
There is no question, however, that by the nineteenth century the Wall had become a central religious focus for Jews both locally and in the diaspora. Politicization of the issue began in the twentieth century, especially following the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine at the end of World War I. District Officer L. Cust observed in 1929 that “in certain Jewish circles the right to pray has […] become linked with the claim to actual ownership of the Wall.”6 By that time, the secular Zionist movement, cognizant of the Wall’s importance as a symbol, had begun to cultivate it in the service of its cause. As a result, it became the focus of growing tensions with the Muslim community.
For the remainder of the article, see: