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    Crumbling stone in the Western Wall exposes Jerusalem’s religious fractures

    It was an otherwise unremarkable occurrence – a lone stone, possibly weakened by erosion, cracked, slipped and plummeted to earth.
    But this stone was not unremarkable. It had been placed there centuries ago as part of a long stretch of limestone blocks in Jerusalem called the Western Wall – known also as the Wailing Wall – which includes remnants of the Temple Mount, the holiest prayer site for Jews.
    Roughly a metre thick, and weighing around 100kg, the slab crashed down in late July, narrowly avoiding a worshipper. It smashed into a wooden platform used by liberal-minded Jews who prefer a mixed-sex prayer space rather than the central plaza, where religious authorities require men and women to pray separately.
    Lying in the rubble and splintered wood, the stone has exposed cracks in the Jewish community, especially between the Orthodox, who run the area, and the more progressive branches. Public figures have suggested that the location of the fall was pertinent, possibly signifying divine intervention. After the incident, deputy Jerusalem mayor Dov Kalmanovich appeared to blame mixed-sex prayers, saying worshippers should “examine themselves”. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall, said it was not his place to interpret signs but that the incident called for “personal introspection”.
    Others have questioned the stability of the 2,000-year-old structure. A 2014 study had found that parts of the wall were eroding, and Joe Uziel, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that a full survey was now being proposed, which would call for scaffolding.
    “We’re taking this as a sort of jumping forward point to say we need to do this for the entire complex of the Temple Mount walls,” he said.
    Such an endeavour would add further complications. The Western Wall is part of a site revered by Muslims, which they call al-Haram al-Sharif; al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock lie above it.
    The Waqf, a Jordan-funded Islamic body, administers Islam’s third holiest site under an extremely delicate status quo agreed with Israel. Work or excavations by either side are a sensitive issue, as they may be seen by the other as infringing on sacred land. In 1996, following the inauguration of Israeli-built tunnels alongside the Western Wall, riots broke out and dozens lost their lives.
    Fouad Hallak, a Jerusalem policy adviser at the negotiations affairs department of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said that Palestinians in and around the Old City area had long complained of damage to their houses “because the foundation is moving below us”.
    Asked whether the Waqf should be consulted on any surveys and conservation efforts, Rabbi Rabinowitz said: “The Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people … we don’t do anything secretly, but we don’t have to consult anybody.”
    Outside his office, in the blinding August sun, the main plaza was filled with a broad spectrum of Jews. Secular Israelis from Tel Aviv in T-shirts and sunglasses visited for the day while Orthodox Jews in black jackets and hats took their prayer books to the wall. Foreign tourists covered in sunscreen took selfies.
    All had come through security gates, where bags are X-rayed. From there, they entered the open square, formerly the Moroccan Quarter, which was flattened after Israeli forces occupied east Jerusalem in 1967.
    Many had come for bar mitzvahs, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony: cheerful families followed 13-year-old boys. By the wall, the sexes separated, and the boys moved into the male-only area for their first reading of the Torah. Their sisters and mothers peeked over a wooden barrier to get a look, throwing small wrapped sweets in celebration.With Rabbi Rabinowitz in charge, the site remains under Orthodox tradition. On their side, women are not allowed to wear prayer shawls or read aloud from Torah scrolls.
    This practice has been challenged, most notably by the Women of the Wall, a group that has campaigned for equal rights in the plaza. In the past, they have flouted the rules, which has sparked protests and even arrests. Over the past couple of years, the issue has become one of the most contentious among diaspora Jewry, where there are large progressive populations.
    Issak, a 57-year-old Orthodox Jew, visits the wall once a month. Reform Jews, a progressive branch, should not push for mixed prayer in the plaza, he said. “The people who are bringing the whole discussion of Judaism to the Western Wall, they should stop it.” Another Orthodox worshipper said that not every Jewish denomination had the right to make demands.
    After decades of outrage over segregation, the Israeli government agreed in 2016 to open a mixed-sex space that connects to the plaza. But following pressure last year from ultra-Orthodox parties, it suspended the plan. For now, women and men can hold mixed services outside the plaza, at a section to the south where a temporary prayer space has been erected, and where the stone fell last month.
    Rabbi Sandra Kochmann, of the Masorti branch of Judaism, which is seen as traditional but not fundamentalist, stands looking down at the cracked floor where the stone fell. Since it crashed to earth, the prayer space close to the wall has been blocked off, and she has officiated at religious ceremonies on a platform further back.
    “We’ve had a lot of problems here in the past,” she says. Orthodox protesters have come down to the mixed area to disrupt her services by singing loudly in congregants’ faces.
    She rolls her eyes when asked about the debate on the significance, whether geological, political or even godly, of the crumbling wall: “The Orthodox say this is because of the Reform. The Reform say this is because of the Orthodox. Others say it’s the Waqf building on top that damaged the structure.” Her own explanation is simpler: “It’s a stone that fell.”

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