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A few minutes later, a male employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation entered the women’s section and closed the door. He gave me his name when I asked for it, but like all the men I have seen who work for the foundation, he wore no uniform or name tag. When I asked him whether the man who had scolded me had sent him, he said yes.
With a polite smile, the employee informed me that the women’s section was closed and I had to leave. Since it was 2:00 P.M. on a Thursday, I asked him to accompany me to the glass plaque outside and showed him where it stated plainly that the women’s section closes at 2:30 P.M. on Thursdays.
“That’s what I said,” he told me. “You have to leave at 2:30.”
This incident was just another attempt by Western Wall officials to marginalize women at the holy site.
Always relatively small, over the past decade women’s access to the Kotel – the space allotted to the outdoor “women’s section,” as well as to prayer spaces in the Western Wall tunnel complex – has been reduced further.
In response to a query to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation as to why this section was only open to women for such a limited time, a spokesman for Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich – the Israeli government official in charge of the Western Wall and the holy sites (and the head of the foundation) – said the area was open to women only when it was not needed as an emergency exit. He noted that the women’s balcony above it was available whenever the Western Wall Tunnels were open to visitors.
The current mehitza, or divider between the outdoor sections for men and women at the Western Wall, was put in place in July 1967. (Under Turkish and British rule, Jews were not permitted to have a mehitza – or any other furniture, such as chairs or tables – at the Western Wall, nor were they allowed to perform other religious rituals, such as blowing the shofar.)
The current women’s section, which has always been about one-third of the men’s section, was reduced still further after an earthquake on February 16, 2004 destroyed the earthen ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate on the Temple Mount, sending tons of soil and rock into the women’s section.
A temporary mehitza put up to enlarge the women’s section slightly was soon removed, leaving the women’s section much smaller than before. The archaeological digs in the area were completed only recently, and the women’s section is now slightly larger than it has been for the past nine years. The limits of the space are felt most acutely on festival days. Recently, the practice has begun of moving the mehitza temporarily at those times, enlarging the section slightly to accommodate more women.