Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In December 1917, when Allied forces captured Jerusalem, General Edmund Allenby pledged “that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.”

In 1920, the first Jewish-Arab dispute over the Wall occurred when Muslim authorities affected repair work to the Kotel’s upper courses. Two years later – and contrary to Allenby’s pledge – the British Mandatory Authority issued a “status quo agreement” forbidding chairs and benches at the Wall. In 1928, the District Commissioner of Jerusalem, Edward Keith-Roach, yielding to a complaint from the Supreme Muslim Council, formally implemented the ban; a British officer stationed at the Wall was charged with preventing Jews from sitting there, and from separating the sexes with a screen as required by Jewish law.

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The Jewish placing of such a mechitza was the catalyst for the “Kotel Affair,” a confrontation between the Arabs, Jews and Mandate authorities when, on Yom Kippur 1928, armed British police forcibly removed it. Women at prayer seeking to prevent its dismantling were beaten by the police, who used pieces of the broken wooden screen frame as clubs, while chairs were pulled out from under elderly worshipers. The episode made international news. Jews across the world condemned the British action, various communal leaders called for a general strike, and large rallies were held.

The Arabs established the “Society for the Protection of the Muslim Holy Places” and undertook a broad campaign to protest an alleged Jewish plan to take control of the Al Aqsa Mosque. Mufti Amin al-Husseini exacerbated the situation by instituting measures to demonstrate the Arabs’ professed exclusive claims to the Temple Mount and its surroundings, including ordering new construction next to and above the Wall. The British determined that the Western Wall alleyway belongs to the Arabs and granted them permission to convert an adjoining building into a mosque and to add a minaret. As an overt provocation against the Jews who prayed there, a muezzin was appointed to perform the Islamic call to prayer at the Kotel.

The British Government commenced an inquiry into the rights of Jewish worshipers to bring accessories to the Wall. On November 19, 1928, it issued The Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, a white paper which emphasized maintaining the status quo and permitted Jews to bring only “those accessories which had been permitted in Turkish times.”

A few months later, Haj Amin complained to John Chancellor, the High Commissioner of Palestine (1928-1931), that Jews were bringing benches and tables to the Wall and driving nails into it to hang lamps, and he ordered that a narrow alley be made at the Wall through which mules were herded, often dropping excrement, thereby both desecrating the Temple area and severely restricting Jewish access there.

In response to Moslem attacks on individual Jews praying at the Kotel, a massive Jewish demonstration was held in Tel Aviv on August 14, 1929, where some 6,000 protestors roared “The Wall is ours.” The next day, which was Tisha B’Av (a tragic day marked by fasting), several hundred youths raised the Zionist flag and sang Hatikva at the Wall, in response to which an organized mob of 2,000 Muslim Arabs descended on the Kotel, injuring the shamash and burning sacred Jewish books.

The escalation of tensions on both sides led to the “Buraq Uprising,” Arab rioting from August 23-29 during which 133 Jews were murdered and over 200 others were injured, in many instances as British police stood by and watched. The infamous 1929 Hebron massacre of August 24, 1929 became the single deadliest attack on Jews in Eretz Yisrael during the period of British Rule.

Jewish demonstrations worldwide followed. For example, in the proclamation issued by the Jewish War Veterans exhibited here, Commander-in-Chief Julius S. Berg calls for a September 3, 1929 “Evening of Mourning” at the Institutional Synagogue in New York:

Palestine, with its “Wailing Wall,” is now comparable to the blood-soaked sod of a battlefield…sorrow and hardship has been visited upon the widows and orphans, the relatives and friends of those who have been pulverized into Mother Earth by the unwarranted and unjustifiable onslaught of the Arabians….

Meanwhile, in the September 1, 1929 leaflet exhibited here, which was dropped from planes over Jerusalem, John Chancellor, the High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine, writes:

I returned from England and, to my great distress, I found the land in the status of a total lack of order, an immoral and illegal revocation of my actions. With great trepidation, I learned of the monstrous acts carried out by evil groups thirsty for blood and savage murderers of the defenseless members of the Hebrew Yishuv without differentiation between gender or age who were accompanied as in Hebron through acts of savagery beyond imagination, the burning of houses and farms in the cities and villages, acts of robbery and destruction.

These transgressors have brought upon the heads of their perpetrators the curse of all the cultured nations to the ends of the world. My first duty is to restore order in the land, to severely punish all those who are responsible for these depraved acts. All necessary means to obtain this objective shall be grasped, and I impose [the duty] on all the residents of Eretz Yisroel to assist me in fulfilling these duties of mine.

In accordance with what I instituted for myself in the presence of the Arab Labor Committee before I left the country in July, I began while in England a negotiation with the Government Secretary with respect to effecting constitutional changes in Eretz Yisrael. In consideration of the latest incidents [of bloody clashes between Jews and Arabs during the British Mandate], I am halting these negotiations with His Majesty’s Government.

To put an end to false information that has been disseminated in the past regarding the Western Wall, I hereby advise regarding the agreement of His Majesty’s Government that it is my intention to give legal validity to the detailed principles of the November 19, 1928 White Paper after the means of its operation are established.

Chancellor (1870-1952) was a great enemy of Zionism and the Jewish people. Though he initially paid lip service to condemning the Arab attacks, he subsequently ignored them and helped to write Lord Passfield’s infamous White Paper of 1930, which “reinterpreted” the Balfour Declaration to withdraw from any British commitment to the creation of a Jewish state.

In the historic November 22, 1929 correspondence on his Chief Rabbinate letterhead exhibited here, Rav Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, writing in English (a rarity for him) to Sir Boyd Merriman, forwards a letter received from the Defense of the Mosque of Aksa and the Moslem Holy Places regarding Jewish rights at the Kotel and seeks guidance regarding what reply should be sent.

Merriman (1880-1962), a Conservative Party politician and British judge who also served as Solicitor General, had been retained by the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive to conduct their case before the “Shaw Commission,” the board of inquiry led by Sir Walter Shaw established to investigate the responsibility for the Arab riots during August 1929. Though Merriman displayed great skill and empathy for the Jewish cause, the Commission’s findings were radically antithetical to Jewish interests.

When testifying before the Commission, Rav Kook made a commanding case for the Jewish right to the Kotel, declaring that the British government has the duty to abolish the humiliating conditions to which Jews praying there are subjected. With the Shulchan Aruch in hand, he discussed Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur practices as pertaining to the Kotel, and he reportedly held the rapt attention of the Commission as he explained Jewish Messianic beliefs regarding rebuilding the Temple.

He completed his testimony by reading the warning letter that had been sent to him by the Moslem Committee for the Defense of the Mosque of Aksa – the very letter that is the subject of our exhibit here – in which the Jews were threatened with dire consequences if they continued to claim more than the limited right to visit the Kotel in silence.

The Shaw Report, which thrilled the Arabs, supported their claim that Jewish land purchases constituted a present danger to the Arabs’ national survival, recommended that further Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael be limited to avoid “a repetition of the excessive immigration of 1925 and 1926,” and concluded that the Wall, and the adjacent pavement and Moroccan Quarter, were solely owned by the Muslim Waqf. It added that Jews had the right to “free access to the Western Wall for the purpose of devotions at all times.” However, that Jewish right included outrageous limits on which objects could be brought to the Wall, including a specific ban on blowing the shofar.

Today, with a strong and thriving Jewish State, “status quo agreements,” “White Papers,” and “Commissions of Inquiry” are things of the past. And yet: In the face of spurious Palestinian claims not only to our Kotel, but to all of Israel, which continue to this day, it is important that we never forget this history and that we treasure the gift that G-d has given us.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.