The Western Wall plaza was cleared after the liberation of Jerusalem almost 50 years ago, allowing the Jewish people to view their sacred site freely. But still, much of the Wall is hidden under Arab houses. “Those houses were built up against the Western Wall a few hundred years ago with the express intention of hiding it… Sewage drains empty directly onto the stones of the Western Wall. What other people would allow such a thing?” remarked PM Menachem Begin.
The secret of the disappearing Wall
On June 8, 1967, while IDF paratroopers were clearing out the last pockets of resistance in the alleys of the Old City, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, came to the Western Wall passageway, accompanied by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and head of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority Yaakov Yanai. The old leader, who by then had been out of office for four years, laid his head on the Western Wall and wept bitterly. After he calmed down, he ordered one of his bodyguards to remove the sign reading “Al-Buraq,” the Muslim name for the Western Wall, and then turned to Yanai: “Aren’t you ashamed? Look — toilets next to the Western Wall.”
Yanai defended himself,saying, “We only got here yesterday.” But Ben-Gurion insisted, “Nevertheless, this is intolerable.” Yanai went up to Kollek and told him about his exchange with Ben-Gurion. “We need to clean the place up. We need to get the Wall in shape,” he said. Kollek promised he’d take care of it. “I’ll talk to the army,” he said.
Ben-Gurion, and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who would visit the Western Wall only days later on the Shavuot holiday, were standing in front of their people’s most important historical site for the first time in two decades.
For 19 years, until Jerusalem was liberated, the Wall was “imprisoned.” When the War of Independence ended in 1949, Jordan controlled the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. As part of the cease-fire agreement, the Hashemite kingdom promised to allow Jews to visit the Wall, but never allowed it in practice. Nor did it address the sewage and stink that the residents of the Mughrabi Quarter left at the Wall. Years earlier, during the British Mandate and the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim residents of that neighborhood had made the lives of Jews who came to pray at the Wall a misery, intentionally sullying it with human and animal feces. Frequently, they even demanded that the Jews pay a tax of sorts (using the threat of violence) for the right to pray at the Western Wall.
The “status quo” declared by the British at the site added more problems. Jews were forbidden to set up benches or a barrier dividing it into men’s and women’s sections; the number of Torah scrolls allowed on site was limited; and blowing a shofar there to mark the end of Yom Kippur was prohibited. The status quo even allowed animals to be herded past it.
The liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War provided a unique opportunity to change the reality. If ever the phrase “historic justice” meant anything, it was perfectly distilled right then at the foot of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Israel threw itself energetically into righting the wrongs and was determined to turn the narrow Western Wall alley into a site suitable for public prayer. A group of enthusiastic veteran contractors enlisted to complete the mission. Journalist Uzi Benziman documented the atmosphere in those days. Eitan Ben Moshe, the chief engineering officer for the IDF’s Central Command, instructed the contractors to “clear this filth away.” They asked for orders in writing. Ben Moshe scribbled instructions, and the contractors began to work. At first, they used shovels and hammers to knock down the toilet facilities, but a few hours later, bulldozers and trucks arrived and began razing the area.
“With deafening noise, the bulldozers moved slowly toward the Mughrabi neighborhood in front of the Western Wall, their jaws open wide and their steel teeth chewing up the little houses that crowded up against each other. … They retreated a bit and then struck again,” is how the writer Yehuda Haezrachi described what happened.
“Alleys were eradicated … clouds of dust rose up around, and in front of them was revealed a wide square as broad as the valley; and the Western Wall also came into sight in the clouds of dust, not from close up, as it had come into sight until now, but from far away, from everywhere, from every part of the giant new square.”
Overnight, on June 10, 1967, the work was completed. The 108 families who had lived in the Mughrabi Quarter were removed. By sunrise, the little neighborhood that had been stuck onto the Western Wall was in ruins. Now, instead of a small prayer plaza that measured 28 by 3.4 meters (92 by 11 feet) and could barely accommodate a few hundred people, a new plaza had been prepared for thousands. The length of the section of the Western Wall designated for prayer had been extended by 60 meters (197 feet). Most of the new prayer area extended 40 meters (130 feet) west and another huge plaza higher up was designated as a site for demonstrations and for swearing-in ceremonies for IDF soldiers.
It felt as though relief and light had finally arrived at the Wall, as one era ended and a new one in the history of the Wall began, but not everyone believed the work was done. Now, 49 years after the reunification of Jerusalem, that the entire length of Western Wall has been exposed, including its underground tunnels, a massive dispute is emerging from the pages of history: There were those who believed then that the removal of the Mughrabi Quarter was the end of it. That it was enough. But there were others who planned to enact Mughrabi-style evacuations along other, lesser known, parts of the Wall, in order to expose them as well.
‘Only out of fear of the nations of the world’
With the benefit of nearly 50 years of perspective, this debate that we know so little about teaches us that we must have missed something. We thought we knew almost everything about the Western Wall, that famous place, the most researched and visited place in Israel. But it turns out that we know very little. Surprising as it might sound, the visible Wall is not complete. Hundreds of meters of it are missing. Underground, in the Western Wall tunnels, the entire 488-meter (1,601-foot) length of the Wall is exposed. But above ground, for hundreds of meters north of the prayer plaza, the Western Wall disappears.
But this realization began to surface only after the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter was complete. Only after the narrow Wall alley had been turned into a large plaza did intriguing, probing questions come up, in whispers at first, and then out loud: What happened to the layers of ancient stone that had once been visible to everyone, even from where the Wall runs through the Muslim Quarter? Why couldn’t they be seen, like the layers of giant stones that hang over the prayer plaza? Where had the Western Wall north of the plaza vanished? Did it still exist? Part of it? Any of it?
The first people to raise these questions to government ministers were the two chief rabbis of the time, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim and Rabbi Yehuda Isser Unterman. Representatives of the Religious Affairs Ministry fielded the questions and got to work. Behind the scenes, the professional echelon in the ministry started to seriously address the issue of exposing sections of the Wall that lay farther north by demolishing more homes and removing more residents.
People from the ministry mapped out the outline of the wall and drew up a secret memo titled “Places Other than the Prayer Plaza Where the Western Wall is Exposed.”
“From detailed maps by researchers and archaeologists, from aerial photographs and from testimonies of elderly residents of Jerusalem, it turns out that the Wall can be followed more or less continually, either above ground, through courtyards, cabins, and streets, or underground,” the memo read.
The ministry’s professional staff recommended conducting a survey of all those places, and even presented Religious Affairs Minister Dr. Zerah Warhaftig with the written document “The Positive Results Expected from Exposing the Western Wall to the North,” which said: “Jewish movement in an additional part of the Old City will strengthen our hold on it. The excavation has historical and archaeological importance that supersedes that of the other archaeological discoveries in Israel. The Western Wall will be exposed in all its glory. Exposing the entire length of the Western Wall, which means for the entire length of the Temple Mount, will demonstrate to the world our rights within with Temple Mount itself, something that is not currently felt.
“The wall of the Old City was excavated under an English plan, for reasons of beauty and historic impression. These reasons are applicable to the Temple Mount, as well, whose wall is already visible in the east and south, but only partly from the west.”
The ministry prepared a map that marked the homes in the Muslim Quarter that would have to be evacuated and demolished to excavate the northern parts of the Western Wall. In 1969, some of these plans reached then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and were stopped for the first time. The Religious Affairs Ministry staff and their associates suggested that “before the discussion about the possibility of excavating the entire length of the Western Wall, [we should] take control of the places along the Wall that aren’t populated, of the vacated and abandoned structures and open plots — for example, the building between the Chain Gate and the Ablution Gate, or the shops next to the Cotton Merchants’ Gate and north of the Iron Gate.”
Rabbis, especially the Chief Rabbinate, which in those years had great influence over the shaping of the Western Wall area, applied heavy pressure. Chief Rabbi Unterman wrote a letter to the ministers in which he said, “The length of the Western wall undoubtedly continues from the northernmost point to the southernmost point, and we mustn’t give a thought to what we would give up regarding the possibility of prayer under foreign rule. Because the Western Wall was sanctified for this purpose only. … We have an obligation to ensure that there will be no disruption to prayer within this boundary.”
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, one of the most important rabbinical authorities of the 20th century, who would later be awarded the Israel Prize, said, “Only out of fear of the nations of the world are we not clearing away all the dirt and the pollution … that is inside the holy area, all along the Western Wall.”
All this activity, which was hidden from the public eye and shrouded in great secrecy, was just a preview of the turn the debate on the fate of the hidden parts of the Western Wall was about to take. In the winter of 1972, the public learned of the existence of the “little” Western Wall.
What is the significance of the retaining wall?
The “little” Western Wall was and still is the only section of the Western Wall north of the prayer plaza that was not covered by Muslim construction and remains visible. About 175 meters (574 feet) north of the plaza, next to the Iron Gate (one of the gates to the Temple Mount), in a narrow passage surrounded by Arab homes, lie two ancient layers of stones from the Western Wall. On top of them lie stones from the Wall from later periods, in the exact chronological order we know from the famous part of the Wall. The “little” Wall is of modest size. It runs in two sections (an abandoned building sits in the middle) for a length of 16.4 meters. The place can be accessed from Iron Gate Street, perpendicular to Hagai Street, next to the northern lintel of the Iron Gate, down a few steps to a covered entrance way that leads to the “little” Wall plaza. The Arabs, who called the traditional Western Wall “Hayout al-Mabkha” — the “Wailing Wall” — called the little Wall “A-Mabkha al-Zair” (the “Little Crying Place”).
The Israeli public at large discovered the “little” Wall in February 1972, when workers from the Jewish Quarter Development Company mistakenly used it to shore up an adjacent home whose foundation had become shaky and whose residents had been evacuated. The workers drilled holes in the wall’s façade to use to anchor the unstable house using steel girders.
The company’s engineers, like most of the public, didn’t know the significance of the “retaining wall” in which they had drilled their holes. They never imagined it could be the next part of the Western Wall. Only when the holes in the little wall were discovered did it take the country by storm, and Jews arrived en masse at the “little” Wall for the first time. Then-Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed an investigative committee. The Knesset held an emergency meeting. People were furious with Kollek for trying to save the shaky house rather than destroying it, as his professional consultants had recommended.
The drilling incident, which came about five years after the Six-Day War, breathed new life into the old plan to excavate the northern part of the Western Wall and evacuate and raze more of the homes that were built against it, as had been done in the Mughrabi Quarter immediately after the war. Nissim, the chief rabbi, and Religious Affairs Minister Warhaftig publicly called to expose the entire length of the Wall. The idea faced stiff opposition from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Foreign Ministry, both of which warned that “destroying the unstable house” next to the little Wall and other adjacent houses could be “just the beginning of demolishing all the Mamluk buildings and Islam’s grand madrasses.”
Sewage thrown at the Wall
One of the most prominent supporters of exposing the entire length of the Wall was Herut Party leader Menachem Begin, who would later become prime minister. Begin also opposed letting the residents of the unstable house return to their home. Two and a half months after the drilling scandal, Begin appeared for a debate on the matter with Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem. Each had very different views on the issue. Begin believed that if the entire length of the Western Wall weren’t excavated, it would be a great opportunity missed. Kollek thought that excavating it and destroying more homes would be a fatal mistake, particularly considering the Arab population of east Jerusalem, and that further excavation and demolition would be a serious blow to Israel’s ongoing attempt to secure international legitimacy for the unification of Jerusalem.
Begin and Kollek exchanged piercing remarks.
Begin: “We began the excavation of the Western Wall without any official decision. A number of homes are standing in our way. I would never suggest that any government institution commit a crime against any people. What I am arguing is that the Wall does not have to remain covered so that it cannot be accessed. Other religions’ holy places stand in their glory in Jerusalem and in Israel, but the Western Wall, now that we have returned to Jerusalem, should be covered? We should have to crawl to see another stone? Where is that written? What kind of morality is that? We have waited for this for 1,800 years. We do not want to harm the sanctity of anyone, but we have our own sanctity and we must protect it, even if that means evacuating a few Arab homes, which are awful slums anyway, and providing alternative, much better housing, to their residents. Those houses were built up against the Western Wall a few hundred years ago with the express intention of hiding it. … Sewage drains empty directly on to the stones of the Western Wall. What other people would allow such a thing?”
Kollek referred to other periods: “Mention was made here of the period in which I was privileged to do things, when we didn’t need decisions, not by the government and not by the Knesset [Kollek was referencing the evacuation of the Mughrabi Quarter], but that time ended after a few days. That was a time when the eyes of the world were fixed on other things. At the time, there were still battles underway on the Golan Heights and we could get things done then.”
Another participant in the debate was Issa Harel, former head of the Mossad. Harel suggesting honoring the commitment made to the residents of the “shaky” house and letting them return, but observed: “When it comes to the Western Wall and Jewish holy places, I think that we aren’t keeping things balanced for ourselves, to our detriment. We take care that the holy places of others aren’t harmed, but we are contemptuous of our own rights. … It’s desirable and important to expose the [entire] Western Wall, and the problem is a practical one: how do we do it without running into complications.”
The person who ultimately ended the dispute was Yigal Allon, who supported allowing the residents evacuated from the area to return to their homes.
“I support excavating the entire length and depth of the Western Wall with all my being. As chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem Affairs, we’ve made great achievements. Therefore, I suggest that we not spend our time here preaching to one another. We are all united in our opinion about the need to excavate the Western Wall. Of course, that is conditional on us doing so wisely, and using unnecessary force isn’t heroism, it’s foolishness,” Allon said.
After Allon spoke, a decision was taken to return the evacuated Arab residents to the shaky house near the “little” Wall. Begin remarked that “by returning the residents and renovating the house, we are about to cut ourselves off from excavating the Wall, at least in this generation.”
“As far as the families go, we can always fix the situation. But if we decide the opposite [to let them move back], we can never fix the situation with the Wall,” he added.
But Begin’s position was rejected and Allon’s was adopted. The houses next to the little Wall were renovated and strengthened. The residents were allowed to move back in. They and their descendants live there today. Begin’s assessment that the move would prevent the Western Wall from being excavated for at least a generation turned out to be correct. Even when he became prime minister himself he did not address the matter.
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