Many visitors to our current exhibition 'Colour in Darkness - images from the First World War' have commented on a photograph of the 'Wailing Wall' in Jerusalem, as it shows women praying at the wall, which is now not allowed. Emeritus Curator Rosie Block has provided historical background to this rare photograph.
Last Sunday, 14 August, was a special day in the Jewish calendar. Tisha b'av (the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av) commemorates the destruction of both the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian invasion (586 BCE) and the Second Temple by the Romans (70 CE).
The western wall is all that remains of the enormous mount which supported King Herod's huge building of the Second Temple. Since Biblical times, Jews have continuously lived in the Holy Land. This photograph of the 'Wailing Wall', now renamed the 'Western Wall', would have been taken before the end of WWI and the consequent establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. Access to the Wall had always been open to all. Jewish men and women prayed alike, in supplication, memory, mourning and hope, for Jewish sovereignty to be restored in the land.
After the 1948 War of Independence, fought in response to the attack by their Arab neighbours, the city was divided into West and East Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem at the centre was treated separately and divided between Israel and Jordan. The Western Wall, within the Old City, was included in Jordanian territory and Jews were not allowed to go there at all.
In 1967, when Israel prevailed over its Arab neighbours in the 'Six Day War', the whole of the Old City fell into Israeli hands. Jews worldwide rejoiced at the return to this holy place. Whole families; mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, rushed to offer up prayers of thanks and commemoration.
Sadly, for decades now, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel has forbidden women even to approach the Wall, let alone pray there. Security officers are employed to turn them away.
However, in recent times, the organisation 'Women of the Wall' ('WoW'), has appealed this prohibition and indeed, has staged group protests against their exclusion. They have now been 'heard' in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament but the issue remains contentious and unresolved.
Rosie Block, Emeritus Curator, State Library of New South Wales
A free exhibition on show until Sunday 21 August 2016.