For many years, "it was a hot potato," as one concerned local resident has put it; no one wanted to take control. The Small Wall remained largely unknown, out of the way and neglected. Only a privileged few realized that it was everything the Western Wall was and even more, for it is closer to the Holy of Holies and therefore more sacred. Yet local Arabs continued to use it as a passageway, garbage dump, and public restroom.
Until last month. After years of sporadic Knesset Committee meetings, grassroots lobbying, and a headline or two every year or so, it finally happened: The Ministry of Religious Affairs agreed to take the Small Wall under its wing, and assume control and responsibility for the holy site.
But, as we all know so well, Redemption does not happen in a day. The Talmud says it arrives "kim'a, kim'a" – step by step, slowly and gradually – and likens it to the slow-motion appearance of the morning sun's first rays over the eastern horizon. Certainly it will one day ultimately reach its successful conclusion; meanwhile, it is taking a long time.
The same with the Small Wall. Yes, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has been in charge for nearly a month, but changes have yet to be noticed. Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat a few days ago, and Knesset Interior Committee Chairperson MK Miri Regev visited the site even more recently; yet a practical, bottom line has yet to be set.
What is the Small Wall, and what is its holiness? We must understand it in the context of the entire Western Wall (the Kotel). The Western Wall's special historic sanctity is something of a mystery, for it is actually not part of the Temple, but simply a retaining, supportive wall for the Temple Mount complex on which the Temple stood. Still, the Sages taught, "The Divine Presence has never left the Western Wall."
The Kotel did not actually exist during the period of the First Temple, and stood only for the last several decades of the Second Temple. King Herod built it as part of his grandiose plan to rebuild and beautify the Holy Temple, in the hopes of mollifying his Jewish subjects, whom he had previously so enraged with the murder of their leading Sages.
The Kotel that fronts the current Western Wall Plaza stands only about 60 meters long (200 feet), less than 15% of its actual length. (Most of the rest of the Wall is essentially buried below or aside Old City houses, though visitors to the Western Wall Tunnels can walk alongside long parts of it.) Two other segments of the Kotel are accessible: The first is the southern end, that which stood opposite a row of stores in Temple times. Amazingly, still in plain sight is the damage caused to the stone flooring there when the Romans hurled giant boulders from above in the course of destroying the Temple 2,000 years ago.
The other exposed segment of the Kotel is the Small Wall. It stands some 170 meters to the left (north) of the Western Wall Plaza, and is simply a 60-foot long section that is either completely or partially exposed. It can be reached only through a narrow alley in the Moslem Quarter, near the Temple Mount's Iron Gate.
Interestingly, the Small Wall today is similar in several aspects to the pre-1967 Western Wall. The late Old City expert Aharon Bier wrote about the Kotel that its exposed portion "was a third the size it is today, and the [narrow] plaza in front of it… was bounded on three sides by the dilapidated houses of the Moslem Mughrabi Quarter. Access to the Wall was only possible via that Quarter… A visit to the Wall was often a depressing and degrading experience. Arabs would drive donkeys through the narrow plaza, dirty water would be splashed on worshippers by the Mughrabi residents washing their floors above, and there were even cases of excrement on the Wall itself."
The situation today at the Small Wall is nearly the same: Arabs walk impudently through, it is accessible only via a narrow alley, garbage is a common sight, and the smell of urine often pervades the area. The Mughrabi Quarter was evacuated and razed to the ground shortly after the Six Day War, creating the giant plaza facing today's Kotel; will the same happen one day with the houses around the Small Wall?
For unknown reasons, the Small Wall was not recognized as a holy site up until recent decades. It is said that the "elders of Jerusalem" would arrive at the Small Wall around midnight to recite the Tikkun Hatzot prayers.
With this, we return to the present. Knesset Member Miri Regev, a former IDF Spokesperson who now chairs the Knesset Interior Committee, is very anxious to see the Kotel Hakatan receive the honor it deserves. "I'm happy that the Ministry of Religious Affairs has finally realized that it must assume responsibility for the site," she said in a phone interview, "but we're waiting to see real change. Deputy Minister Rabbi Ben-Dahan knows that I'm holding another Committee session on this topic in two weeks, and so I'm confident that by then he will have done something."
"Ideally, what would you like the area to look like?" Regev was asked, and she responded without hesitation, "Very simple: It should be clean and protected 24 hours a day by both a guard and cameras; signs stating that it is a Holy Site should be posted and not painted over, as they are now; and the scaffolding (originally placed there to support an adjacent Arab house, but no longer in use – HF) should be totally removed. The Kotel is clean and not used as a lavatory, and the same should be for the rest of it as well. Of course, there should also be shelves for prayerbooks and the like."
One Jewish Quarter woman who has been in the forefront of Small Wall campaigning for many years, recounts the following incident: "On the Sukkot holiday two years ago, I clearly saw a little Arab boy come and urinate at the site, in full view of many worshipers. I myself caught him and told him to clean it up, but he screamed, and then an Arab woman there also screamed, and the police arrived… Instead of grabbing the boy, they tried to threaten me – but at that moment, a group of Breslovers (hassidim, – HF) started singing and dancing, and I was able to lose myself among them… The boy also got away…"
The Jewish residents of the Old City in Jerusalem have much experience with trappings of Redemption: Jews from around the world praying at the site of the long-destroyed Temples, a renewal of weddings and children playing in the courtyards, and signs of the rebuilding of Jerusalem on every street and corner. They now pray and expect to see the Small Wall totally redeemed as well.