Jerusalem Post, July 15, 2021
“It was the 1929 riots that brought the Western Wall to the forefront as the Temple Mount is today.”
In apportioning blame for being forced to fire missiles and rockets at Israel in May, Hamas highlighted the actions of the police at the Temple Mount on the evening of Memorial Day for the Fallen, when the loudspeakers were temporarily disconnected to allow the ceremony to proceed with decorum. In his May 15 Qatar speech, Ismail Haniyeh did not forget to mention “our people within the 1948 borders are the ones defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared back on September 16, 2015 that Jews “have no right to defile it with their filthy feet” and a year earlier, on October 17, 2014, announced that “We have to prevent them, in any way whatsoever, from entering… our Al-Aqsa…They have no right to enter it. They have no right to defile it.”
But prior to 1967, it was the Western Wall that was the contesting arena for the clashing political/theological outlooks, borrowing from Carl Schmitt’s Politische Theologie. As the Islamic narrative has it, the “Wall of Buraq” is “The wall at which [the Prophet Muhammad] tied his camel [and] is reserved by the Muslims,” as Imam Abdullah Khadra preached in 2017.
Mahmoud Al-Habbash, adviser to Abbas on Religious and Islamic Affairs, declared also that year, “The Al-Buraq Wall is part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is part of our faith, our religion, our existence, and part of the survival of our people… not a single millimeter of [the Al-Buraq Wall] may fall under any sovereignty other than that of the Palestinian people.”
It was the 1929 riots that brought the Western Wall to the forefront as the Temple Mount is today.
The September 30, 1929 JTA report noted that British Mandate “authorities are making a careful inventory of appurtenances at the Wailing Wall strictly required for religious services, with the intention of not allowing any other objects, such as a screen separating men and women worshipers, matting, benches or stools.” As an exception, the “ritual wash stand, a small Aron Kodesh (Ark) containing the Holy Scrolls, and a small table for reading the Torah will be permitted.”
The riots that year had led to a British Commission of Inquiry appointed in 1929 and one of the main topics was whether Jews actually were permitted to sit before the Wall. Years before the infamous university “ghetto benches” of Poland and Austria in the 1930s and the Nazi edicts prohibiting Jews from relaxing on park benches, the Commission decreed that “No benches, chairs or stools shall be brought to or placed on the pavement before the Wailing Wall.”
Already in 1926, Colonel George Stewart Symes, Chief Secretary to the Government of Palestine, spoke on behalf of the Mandatory Power before the Permanent Mandates Commission at its ninth Session in 1926 and said: “Jews were accustomed to go to the western Temple wall to bewail the fallen grandeur of Israel. The site, however…belonged to a Muslim Waqf, and, while the Jews were allowed to go there, they were not legally allowed to do anything which would give the impression that the site in question was their own property… the Muslims who owned the site in question had raised objections to the bringing of stools by the Jews to the site, for (they said) after stools would come benches, the benches would then be fixed, and before long the Jews would have established a legal claim to the site.”
So on guard were the Arabs that on the Shabbat, October 19, 1928, they attacked a 60-year-old beadle, Yitzhak Mizrachi, and beat him over the head with an iron rod when he refused to remove the folding chairs, according to Haaretz, he had brought to the Wall for the worshipers.
BUT WAS it Zionism’s fault, the effort to establish an internationally recognized right to a Jewish homeland, with immigration and settlement, which heightened the tensions? Was it the increased political power of the Mufti Amin Al-Husseini? Was it religious fanaticism?
After all, expatriate Israeli historian and social activist Ilan Pappe wrote, “While Kamil al-Husayni was Mufti [until March 1921], the Muslim authorities reacted mildly to the Jewish breaches of the status quo at the Wall… Increasingly the Jews brought chairs and benches into the area, and the Palestinians connected this behavior to statements made by Jewish and Zionist figures about the need to build the Third Temple.”
Was the Muslim reaction indeed “mild,” as claimed? Or were there indications of increasing tension, conflict and occasional violence? What was the situation at the Western Wall prior to World War I?
The root of the confrontation was a firman (decree) issued by Ibrahim Pasha in May 1840, which forbade the Jews to pave the passage in front of the Wall, it being only permissible for them to visit it “as of old.” The Counsel for the Muslims further referred to a decision of the Administrative Council of the Liwa in the year 1911 prohibiting the Jews from certain appurtenances at the Wall. The Counsel for the Jews, on the other hand, referred the Commission in especial to a certain firman issued by Sultan Abdul Hamid in the year 1889, which says that there shall be no interference with the Jews’ places of devotional visits and of pilgrimage
A REVIEW of the various contemporary Hebrew newspapers at the time indicate that there were multiple incidents when Jewish rights were curtailed and even prohibited, notably preventing the bringing of chairs, benches and lamps to the courtyard. Already on August 29, 1905, The Hashkafa reported that students of the Mea She’arim Yeshiva on their way to the Wall had been set upon by Arabs from a nearby cafe.
On May 10, 1911, HaTzfira reported that the Sefaradi shamash at the Wall had been beaten and benches smashed. On August 8, one Yehuda Levy was struck in the eye while walking near the Kotel. On August 8, 1909, HaTzvi published a short item on the progress of a collection of funds that would be used to purchase the Wall courtyard area. This activity perhaps could have been unsettling.
What should not be ignored is the contretemps over the Parker Mission. A British adventurer, Captain Montague Parker, had been engaged for some two years in archaeological excavations around the Temple Mount but was intent on searching for Solomon’s “gold”. Using a bribe of $25,000 for Azmey Bey, who also included Sheikh Khalil, the hereditary guardian of the Mosque, in the secret scheme, Parker’s team entered the Haram al-Sharif compound itself in April 1911. After searching the area of Solomon’s Stables at the southern portion, on April 17, they entered the Dome of the Rock surreptitiously and began work at the Cave under the Foundation Stone. During the night of April 17-18, they were discovered and fled. On the morning of April 19, 1911, a crowd of angry Muslims, outraged at what they considered to be a desecration of the holy Mosque of Omar or the Dome of the Rock, rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem.
Coincidentally, Muslims insisted that the Wall was not properly a synagogue, which might imply a more permanent Jewish presence. During 1911, Arab residents near the Wall complained that Jews should not be allowed to bring chairs in order to sit but, rather, ought to stand during their visits, “lest in the future Jews claim ownership of the place.” Chairs, tables, and screens separating men and women were all regarded as “innovations” that might later be used to support a Jewish claim of possession.
In March 1911, one month before the Parker Haram al-Sharif incident, the Ottoman parliament had debated the issue of Zionism. A report sent to the district governor in Beirut that spring by the local governor of Nablus, quoted Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch as complaining that the “indigenous population’s properties and land are being lost, transferred to foreigners and Jews”
The subsequent prohibition eliminating benches and screens and tools from being used by Jews at the Wall was taken in late November 1911 by the Turkish Administrative Council of the Liwa that passed a resolution stating, inter alia, “…His Eminence the Mufti, the Awkaf Department and the Sharia Court stated… that it is inadmissible by Law in all respects that there should be placed chairs, screens and similar articles… which may indicate ownership… nobody has the right to place such articles, or to make innovations as to occupy the site of the wall of the Noble Aqsa Mosque”.
In the December 12, 1911 edition of HaTzvi, Itamar Ben-Avi published a passionate column in which he wrote, “With the Western Wall, we will die or live!”
AT THE end of January 1912, a four-person deputation appeared before the Jerusalem Pasha to plead the case for permission to be able to sit on benches at the Wall. HaMoriah cautioned its readers on February 13 that only an instruction from the Turkish capital could resolve the issue.
In its February 23, 1912 issue, HaTzefira informed that a new emissary from Constantinople had arrived in Jerusalem and there were hopes of raising the matter with him, but from the May 15, 1913 issue of HaZman we know that the prohibition was still in effect and not only benches but also portable chairs were now included.
HaTzvi of March 12, 1912 contained a report of the meeting of the Jewish community’s “The Committee of Eighty” which deliberated the issue after a delegation as received by the Pasha.
They learned that the Mufti as head of the Waqf demanded that no Jewish appurtenances that could be seen as expressing ownership be permitted at the Wall. The courtyard is adjacent to the Haram and is part of its property as the Haram overlooks it. Nevertheless, despite the Waqf’s ownership, Jerusalem’s Jewish community protests this prohibition as it negates the custom of the past 300 years that Jews have been praying at the site. It was decided to plead the case at Constantinople.
HaTzvi of July 12, 1912 reported that the Western Wall stones had been smeared with feces over Tisha Be’Av and on August 6, 1912 noted that the Haham Bashi, the Sefaradi Chief Rabbi, had sent a protest letter. Two days earlier, on August 4, police came and removed all stools upon which the worshipers sat, tossed holy books to the ground and spilled out oil from the lamps. On August 9, HaMoriah informed its readers that the Arab who spilled out the oil and removed the stools vociferously denied throwing any psalter to the ground for, as he insisted, David was also a Muslim prophet.
Although the Chicago Sentinel Jewish weekly published on July 26, 1912 that the prohibition on seating had been rescinded, on March 25, 1913, HaTzvi noted that during the Mussaf prayer the previous Shabbat, two Turkish soldiers pushed their way through the crowd looking for benches and chairs. Moreover, during the week, a search was made for a water container usually kept there.
By the outbreak of World War I, the benches were back, but the following the election of Haj Amin Al-Husseini in early 1921, the tensions renewed over Jewish rights at the Western Wall until the 1928 Rosh Hashanah screen removal led to the riots the following August.
The delegitimization of Jewish national identity, of our historical presence here and the making of arbitrary rulings backed by violence to suppress and deny those rights as at the Kotel a century ago and today on the Temple Mount are indicative of an ongoing clash that cannot be ignored, neither Jews nor the world can be allowed to forget.
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