The key dispute in the recent feud between Women of the Wall and some of the group’s founders is whether Robinson’s Arch — an area adjacent to the Kotel plaza meant for egalitarian prayer — counts as the Western Wall.
Anat Hoffman and most of the group’s board has said they’re willing, in principle, to hold their monthly women’s prayer services there — if the site meets a long list of conditions.
But the faction opposing the compromise says Robinson’s Arch doesn’t count. In an open letter last week to Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman ahead of the JFNA General Assembly, members of the anti-Robinson’s Arch faction doubled down on their position, comparing accepting the area to settling for the early 20th-century British offer of Uganda as a Jewish homeland.
“It is deceptive to label other sites ‘the Kotel’ or ‘the Wall’ when that is not the case,” the letter read. “All know that Robinson’s Arch is not the Kotel and no deceptive advertising can change that.”
But does the Uganda comparison work? Uganda is on a different continent than Israel and holds no historical significance to Jews. Robinson’s Arch, on the other hand, is immediately south of the current Kotel plaza and faces the same retaining wall of the Second Temple that we call the Western Wall. Archaeological ruins of the Temple lay there.
I emailed Phyllis Chesler, one of the letter’s signatories, asking why the group so opposed a prayer space at Robinson’s Arch. In the exchange that followed, she outlined three basic reasons the faction will never accept Robinson’s Arch in lieu of the Western Wall women’s section — even if the government meets all of Women of the Wall’s demands for the space:
- Women of the Wall includes Orthodox members who would be uncomfortable with praying in an egalitarian space. Chesler says a move to Robinson’s Arch would mean losing “the ability of women-only to pray together across denominations.”
- Chesler and her co-signers care most about the wall as a symbol of Jewish historical longing and prayer. Even if Robinson’s Arch is part of the same structure as the Wall, the signers feel that it hasn’t served that historical function. “Jews sanctified [the wall] by our behavior there for millennia,” Shulamit Magnus, another signer, wrote to me. “That has meaning, it has reality. You can’t order that up for a site that has no resonance because it’s the same pile of rocks.”
- And however short the distance, Robinson’s Arch is that much farther from the Holy of Holies, the Temple’s most sanctified space. Chesler wrote that to move Women of the Wall farther away for that site is to say that the group is less deserving of holiness.
Women of the Wall’s lengthy list of demands likely means that this will remain a theoretical dispute for a long time. But the continued campaign of the group’s opposing faction shows that for some people, the same stones connected to the same structure will never be “the Wall.”