Take Back the Kotel by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 22, 2009

A few days ago a congregant asked me how he should approach the Kotel as it was his first time seeing the Kotel (Western Wall) and he was bringing his children there for the first time. Instead of talking about different meditations, or Psalms or prayers to say, I started with:
“Don’t let anyone “help” you, and don’t look at any of the people who come up to you asking to be your guides. Don’t give anyone any money, or you’ll be inundated. Pretend you are in New York City of the 1970’s: just walk up to the Wall with an attitude and don’t look like a dazed tourist.”
Oy! The shneurers at the Kotel have become hustlers and people who prey on those who are week. Yes, they “prey” on people who are “praying”! This is a bother if you are there regularly, but if it is your first time to the Kotel for a long time, they are terrible. They have ruined for many people I know what could be a spiritual experience, an experience more powerful than any other davening experience they have had in any other setting. Yes, it is important to give tzedaka during and around davening, but not to be hustled into giving it to people who are aggressively pushing out many other needier people and needier causes. It is rewarding aggression; it ruins the sense of personal safety that a place of prayer should have. I have witnessed fights that broke out between Kotel regulars because a shneurer would not leave people alone.
About two years ago, the authorities tried to clamp down on the shnuerers, and I got excited, but then when I came back a few months later, they were back.
So I have a modest proposal: Since the rabbanut cannot control the Kotel properly, and all they do with their control of the Kotel is not allow women to read Torah and not allow Conservative, Reform and other Jews to pray at the Kotel as they are used to – mixed men and women, it’s time to take operational authority away from them. Wow! Can this ever happen? Well, we can just make it an experiment in the One State solution I discussed in last week’s blog: Operational Authority of the Kotel and the Temple mount will be removed from the Jewish and Muslim religious authorities, and will be put into the hands of a new Holy Land Antiquities Authority, which will be a mixed body of Jews and Arabs, mostly archeologists but some business minds as well – starting with a majority of Jews, but with a significant Muslim presence.
These holy places should not be run by parochial, self-interested authorities; their mandate should be how to make these places as meaningful and welcoming to as many worshippers as possible. The new authority will work on how to enable Jews to appreciate the Temple Mount more – including regular services – and how to make Muslims and other religions appreciate the Kotel more. The Kotel area should be divided into four sections: one for strictly traditional men’s Jewish services, another for strictly traditional women’s services, another for any kind of Jewish services – and there could be multiple services going on a one time, even in this third section – and a fourth section for anyone who wants to worship God in any way – as long as it’s not violent or anti-Semitic. The Temple Mount area might be divided the same way, or in a more relaxed way.

And the police would be both at the Kotel and the Temple Mount – as they are now – but their biggest challenge will not be Muslims and Jews, male prayer leaders and women prayer leaders; their biggest challenge will be keeping the shneurers away. That will be the true test of the potential for a One State!

Asher Lopatin